Out of Work Syndrome: Reestablishing Control

If you’ve ever blurted out, “Work is making me sick!” there may be more truth to the statement than you’d imagine.

A recent study of more than 6,000 contract workers at several Department of Energy sites is painting a dismal picture of what happens to employees who survive downsizing efforts. Funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, researchers at Boston University recently showed that employees surviving a downsizing or layoff actually suffer a host of ailments when the process is perceived as unfair and secretive.

The researchers noted an increased incidence of anxiety, headaches, backaches and a host of stress-related disorders in people who were directly involved in the layoff process. Individuals who were responsible for firing others, or who actually were fired (even if rehired) were more likely to suffer from health problems.

As a physician practicing whole person medicine, I find it fascinating to discover that industrial experts and consultants are finally becoming aware of the fact that these health-related issues are the consequence of not only ongoing pressure in the workplace, but also lack of sense of control. Even more revealing is their newly-found understanding that these ailments are not psychological in nature.

Didn’t they ever hear about the mind-body connection?

Better yet, why didn’t they attempt to understand that inseparable link before the government workers were dismissed?

I suppose the best answer lies in the reticence to prevent a problem before it occurs. Even when a plethora of research concerning the relationship between sense of control and illness exists, most people assume such illnesses are “all in your head” anyway!

As an example, countless patients over the years have shared their plights with me about struggling against less-than-understanding employers who didn’t believe their headaches were real. In fact, most people actually lie to their employers about such issues. Let’s take a few moments to imagine their plight:

Awakening at 4 a.m. with a splitting headache coupled with nausea and profuse vomiting, the average person proceeds to take prescribed medication before attempting to fall asleep again. Yet by 6 a.m. the headache still persists. The individual, drained of energy, realizes the only option is to call in sick. What does the person do?

Call in and say, “I have a headache and can’t come to work.” No way!

Many well-meaning patients make up a story in order to keep their jobs. “I can’t come in because I have a high fever, a rash, my chest hurts, I’m having difficulty breathing and I can’t stop coughing.” Top it off with a touch of diarrhea and vomiting, and they’ll tell you … better yet strongly advise you to stay home! While they wouldn’t accept your headache as a rational excuse in a million years, no one wants to share your infection.

Believe this is a rarity? – think again! It is estimated that 16% of females and 7% of males in the United States suffer from migraine headaches. This physician believes these numbers represent a gross underestimation. My suspicion is supported by the fact that over $4 billion/year is spent on just over-the-counter headache medicines.

The problem however is not about headaches, but rather work-related illnesses, symptoms and perceptions.

I often wonder how many of my patients (employers and employees alike) experience high blood pressure, anxiety-related disorders and even heart disease as a result of work-related pressure. We simply assume these are genetically-based, when in reality … you guessed it, they’re related in many cases to work stress.

Given these newly discovered insights, what can employers in a rapidly changing work environment do to prevent illnesses in their employees?

Why not begin by leveling with those who work for you? Avoid information blackouts. Realize that halting communications causes everyone to expect the worst. Consider the options available to you. Approach this as an important executive strategy. Prepare your workers and your managers through a well-thought-out progressive process rather than just a pink slip. Finally, be honest – you’re dealing with people’s lives.

And for the worker who’s caught up in the throws of a layoff, do not ignore your well-being. Seek answers around you whenever possible and take control by discovering your options before you receive the final word. Do not wait powerlessly for the not-so-surprising meeting on Friday afternoon with your boss. Be proactive.

Welcome new possibilities and waste no time charting your next course. Perhaps the impending layoff is about to herald the greatest opportunity of your life to do what you really enjoy. Finally don’t forget to take time for de-stressing yourself. You and your family have more to consider than just your job – Mind Over Matter!

© 2000 Barry Bittman,
MD all rights reserved

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Written by Barry Bittman MD

Explore Wellness in 2021