Is Work Making You Sick?

January 20, 2006 ( - Two studies show a link between the workplace, work-related stress, asthma, and heart disease.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reports that nearly 15% of US adults are allergic to their workplace. Occupational asthma is the cause for about 24.5 million missed workdays annually, says the American Academy of Allergies, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI).

Symptoms for the lung disorder include wheezing or coughing, becoming short of breath, and tightness in the chest, as well as difficulty exercising, runny nose, nasal congestion and eye irritation, according to the SHRM report. The AAAAI says the problem usually worsens through the workweek, improves over the weekend and reappears with the employee’s return to work, and it can last a long time even if the worker no longer is exposed to whatever caused the symptoms.

Workplace allergies can develop from breathing fumes, gases, dust or other potentially harmful substances on the job. Workers have reported getting asthma from washing powders, paint, natural latex gloves, and even flour.

According to the AAAAI, occupational asthma is often improperly diagnosed as bronchitis. If not correctly diagnosed, and if the worker is not protected or removed from exposure to the offending substance, there could be permanent lung damage.

Dr. Michael Zacharisen, an associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin and chairman of the AAAAI’s occupational disease committee, suggests that employers have their workplace evaluated by an industrial hygienist. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says relocating the affected employee elsewhere in the workplace should be a good solution, if the employee has had symptoms for less than a year. The CDC also said smokers were more susceptible to developing occupational asthma.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that researchers at University College London (UCL) have shown that work stress is a risk factor for metabolic syndrome which includes high blood pressure, raised cholesterol levels, high blood sugar and excess weight. Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of characteristics that can lead to heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

In the study of more than 10,000 British civil servants published online by the British Medical Journal , the scientists said the higher the stress levels reported by the employees the greater the risk of metabolic syndrome, according to Reuters. Scientists studied the stress levels of the civil servants over the past 20 years and compared them with components of metabolic syndrome which were measured between 1997 and 1999, in addition to recording lifestyle factors such as drinking, smoking, eating habits and exercise.

Workers with chronic work stress were nearly twice as likely to develop the syndrome than workers who reported little or no stress, according to the study.

“The good news is that many of the features of the metabolic syndrome can be reversed or improved by lifestyle changes, in particular increasing exercise and losing weight, combined with stopping smoking,” Professor Peter Weissberg, the medical director of the British Heart Foundation said in a statement.