0 Comments | Oct 18, 2010

The Science of Stress

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Employee stress is a big deal.  Many of us understand the concept anecdotally and generically, but with employee healthcare costs rising at ruinous rates (12% per year over the past five years – read more here), it’s probably time to understand the problem a bit more scientifically.

The impacts of stress are well documented:

  • One million Americans miss work every day due to stress-related conditions.
  • Stress costs American businesses $300 billion every year.
  • Stress adds 46% to the average annual employee healthcare cost.
  • Stress is a factor in all five leading causes of employee death.
  • When job stress and employee depression team up, company healthcare costs skyrocket 146%.

If your company isn’t yet convinced that it’s time to do something about aggregate employee stress levels, we’ve put together a few more arrows for your employee health and wellness quiver.

The scientific information comes from a set of unlikely sources:  baboons, monkeys, rats, and government workers (Seriously.  You can’t make this stuff up).

Dr. Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology, neurology, neuroscience, and brain surgery at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, has spent 30 years studying baboons.  Baboons are a nearly-ideal parallel cohort to humans – which is a nice way of saying that we really do behave like baboons, so we can learn quite a bit about our own behavior and stress responses by studying our genetic cousins.  Dr. Sapolsky discovered two extremely useful facts:

  1. Nearly all baboon stress is socially-induced.  In other words, baboons spent a great deal of time stressing each other out.

    Chronic Stress Sufferer

  2. The level of stress hormones running through a given baboon’s blood depends on his or her social rank within the highly status-sensitive baboon culture.

The dominant male doesn’t have much stress.  The lowest baboon on the totem pole, however, is a wreck.  He gets picked on all the time, and enjoys very little control over many significant aspects of his existence, including his access to food and mating partners.  Not surprisingly, the “little guys” – those occupying lower rungs of baboon troop social ladders – have significantly higher levels of cortisol and norepinephrine, the stress hormones responsible for all sorts of systemic maladies.  Status and stress are inextricably linked in baboon society.

It’s not just baboons.  Wake Forest University’s Dr. Carol Shively has conducted similar research on a cohort of macaque monkeys, with striking results.  She found strong rank correlations that should give us pause:

  1. Despite eating exactly the same foods as their higher-ranking neighbors, lower-ranking individuals developed more midsection body fat.  Midsection body fat has long been linked with other adverse health indicators, such as blood cholesterol, reduced organ function, and increased arterial blockage.  If everything else is equal, does stress make you fatter, and with more adverse fat distribution patterns?  The answer is yes.
  2. Lower-ranking individuals had more atherosclerosis, or arterial plaque buildup, than their higher-ranking counterparts.  Stress translates directly to decreased cardiovascular efficiency and resiliency.

We’re not terribly different, genetically speaking, from monkeys and baboons.  The lessons about stress should be fairly clear from these two examples alone, but a third study really strikes close to home.

The UK’s Whitehall Stress and Health Study followed over 10,000 government service workers since 1985, documenting a number of sociological and health factors to discover correlations.  Because each participant is a government worker, with equal access to the same healthcare programs and facilities, and subject to the same professional stratification structure, the researchers are able to make very clear conclusions without having to adjust findings for significant variations in work environment and healthcare access.

Any guess as to what they found?

Yep.  More rank equals less stress, which translates to better health.  Less rank equals more stress, leading to worse health.  In fact, the results correlate disease rates and healthcare usage costs as a function of employee rank with alarming precision.

It’s bad enough that stress causes health problems.  But there’s significant research indicating that stress dramatically reduces employee productivity as well.

Acute stress, such as the approach of a big deadline, a major project proposal, a performance review, an important sales presentation, a corporate inspection, etc, has been shown to reduce cognitive capacity.  Norepinephrine and cortisol (those pesky stress hormones designed to help us fight or flee) actually reduce the brain’s ability to think analytically, synthesize information, and come up with answers to questions that would otherwise be easy and well within our capabilities.  We’ve all experienced this phenomenon in an academic setting, but we’ve called it “test anxiety.”  In reality, it’s the brain’s natural response to stress hormones.

When we experience many stressors over time, something much more sinister happens.  Our brain cells actually shrivel and die.  In laboratory experiments, rats subjected to elevated stress hormone levels over prolonged periods of time experienced a reduction in the number and length of dendrites, the “connectors” between brain cells that allow cognition.  This dendritic dilapidation occurred most acutely in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for enabling memory function.

Stress, quite literally, kills brain cells.  Stressed employees do not produce nearly as well as non-stressed employees, and a chronically stressed workforce becomes permanently less capable of producing profitable output than a healthy workforce.

What does all of this mean?  If you’re an employee health and wellness benefits coordinator, or if you’re in charge of administering an employee wellness program, it’s of paramount importance to address your employees’ aggregate stress level.  You’ll never be able to eliminate rank-based stressors entirely, but you can implement programs that reduce your entire workforce’s stress.  Vacation Wellness™ is one such program (our favorite, in fact, but you probably guessed that already).  It’s effective because it targets stress directly.

How effective is stress reduction?  Read a case study here for more information, but it’s fairly clear from the medical research that attempting to reduce your company’s healthcare cost burden without addressing employee stress levels just won’t work.

Our stress response is hard-wired.  If we want to reduce the costly effects of excess stress on our workforce, the research certainly points us in the right direction:  we need to simply reduce the amount of stress our employees experience.  It isn’t difficult or costly.  It just requires doing.