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November 7, 2013 at 9:10 PMComments: 0 Faves: 0

How Your Occupation Affects Your Health

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

I saw a patient the other day who had been retired for four months. He left the grind of a stressful job and didn't look back. Knowing him for the last 10 years of his career, I heard several familiar job complaints: performing the workload of two or three people, a boss with no interpersonal skills, and mandatory overtime followed by lay-offs and cuts in benefits. I listened to his complaints wishing I could help with these work-related problems as we managed his high blood pressure and diabetes. I saw him again this week post "job-ectomy" and was amazed at how his blood pressure was actually low and his diabetes control was the best I had seen it. We even took him off some of his medication. Emotionally, he felt calmer, more together. His dramatic turn around got me thinking about the role our jobs play on our bodies.

Occupational Health

It has long been known that work can take its toll on a body. The field of occupational health emerged out of health issues caused by work. Laws were enacted to protect workers and an oversight organization was formed, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).  Through the vigilance of occupational health workers and OSHA, things are a lot better than they were or could be in various work environments. 

The Physical Toll

The physical tax from work is dependent on a number of things; strenuous work can lead to injury, as can sitting in front of a computer with poor ergonomics. The common thread in preventing problems is being smart about the proper ways to lift, sit, type, etc. Most problems I see are a result of either cutting corners or using the body improperly to perform a task. When helpful technology like a lifting jack or an ergonomic chair are passed over in favor of good old manual labor, improper body mechanics begin to add up day after day.

So many problems could be avoided if a person spent five minutes adjusting the height of their computer monitor and the arm rests on their chair.  A proper monitor height puts the neck in neutral position, preventing the overuse of non-postural muscles. Arm rests isolate the arms for typing and prevent the rhomboid muscles between the shoulder blades from supporting the arms for long periods of time. Unfortunately, these positive initiatives are rather uncommon.

Our bodies are like a set of tires. At best, tires are good for 80,000 miles or so under the most optimal conditions. The joints and muscles or our bodies are similar in that there is only so much wear and tear that we can handle. If your job causes you this sort of physical toil, be wise so that you have more rubber on the treads for the things you like to do in your free time. If you have a physically demanding job, seriously consider contingency plans such as positioning yourself for a move to management or retooling for non-strenuous work.

The Emotional Toll

Virtually everybody at work would rather be someplace else. Waking up to an alarm and going somewhere we really don't want to go takes discipline. Let's face it, we do it for the money. These conditions, along with the bureaucracy, pecking order, and convergence of different personalities, can be emotionally taxing. For persons in service-oriented jobs (waiting tables, retail, customer support, etc.), this can be especially volatile. This chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, anxiety, and/or a weakened immune system.

Most of us lack autonomy in the work place, the power to change a situation. To loosely quote the serenity prayer, we are left to "accept the things we cannot change." For some, this is easier than others. We fight tendencies to take the stress home with us, worrying and fretting all the way up to the next shift. If a work situation cannot change, talk it through with loved ones to blow off some steam. Be prepared with emotional armor for work with adequate sleep, nutrition and exercise (easier said than done I realize), or consider counseling or relaxation techniques.  And work toward Ghandi's philosophy of facing adversity and being the change you wish to see in the workplace. In other words, infect others with your positivity.   

The Logistical Toll

For many, time is the principal barrier between their current state and better health. A steady job can detract from this, as we look to cut corners just to fit everything we can into each day. Exercise is ignored, as is getting caught up on needed sleep in the morning or extra work demands. Fast food mitigates the extra time it would take to shop and prepare a healthy lunch. As work takes and takes, the years pile up along with the pounds and perhaps the chronic consequences such as obesity, diabetes, or high blood pressure.

Really, it all boils down to priorities. Breaking such a vicious cycle of work-stimulated poor health can yield surprising results with increased energy and time. Regular exercise and proper diets lead to less requirements for sleep and increased efficiency throughout the day.

The Positives

Not all work is bad for our health. Our jobs can be satisfying in that they often lead us to interact with people and build social relationships, along with providing varying degrees of exercise. For instance, my former mail carrier put on significant weight after he retired. Looking back, he was thankful that he had gotten paid to burn calories all those years. 

Employers are taking note of a simple notion: Happy employees = Happy business. In doing so, they're increasing efforts to help employees maintain their emotional and physical health. Programs allow employees to vent frustrations, grow as a team, relax, and stay physically active. Many innovative companies have health clubs on their grounds, encouraging employees to engage in fitness. 

Workers' Compensation

Many patients come to me, injured at work, and are confused by "work comp." In a nutshell, workers' compensation is an agreement that if an employee is injured on the job, the employer will take care of the employee's health care and lost time in exchange for not getting sued. This typically includes medical bills and paid time off.

For workers' compensation to work, everyone needs to be agreeable and honest. I've seen a lot of suspicious situations where workers feel like their issues are dismissed and employers feel used by a malingering employee. For employees, success in a workers' compensation claim hinges on speedy and honest communication with their employer. So many times a patient comes to me complaining about an injury that happened several days ago that they thought would improve over timer. The "I didn't want to be a fuss with my supervisor" excuse can create a lot of trouble down the line. Documentation is vital when an injury on the job occurs.

According to the workers' compensation law, the employer has a right to send the employee to the healthcare provider of their choosing (a company doctor for instance). After 10 days of care, the employee can go to the healthcare provider of their choosing if they feel more comfortable with a familiar physician or are looking for a second opinion.

Work can be hard on a body for a number of reasons. You've only got one run in this life and nobody ends their days wishing they had worked more. The fact of the matter, however, is that most everyone must work to survive financially. As such, use precautions in avoiding overuse or acute injuries at work - use your brain. Know your rights as far as safety on the job and your care if you are injured at work. And lastly, work toward creating meaning in your job and fostering positive relationships with your fellow employees.

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