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Published: Friday, 4/30/2010

Stressing out at work

THE refrain is often heard from American workers": "This job is killing me." It's especially so when they're feeling pressured by demanding bosses, looming deadlines, or pending performance reviews. Turns out it's true.

Previous studies have shown that sitting at a desk all day, snacking from vending machines and eating cafeteria food, adds pounds to many workers. Now, researchers at the University of Rochester have found that workplace stress also leads to workers gaining weight, perhaps because these workers are more likely to become couch potatoes at home.

The result is an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, depression, and anxiety.

The Rochester study, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in January, is particularly timely.

This month, MetLife Inc. issued the results of a survey in which 40 percent of American workers said their workload had increased in the past 12 months.

In the same survey, 36 percent of employers touted productivity gains in the past year from putting greater emphasis on getting more out of their existing (and sometimes reduced) work force.

Last month, the Labor Department reported that worker productivity in U.S. factories and businesses rose 6.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009. About the same time, economists with the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco released a report concluding that productivity gains allowed employers in the United States to lay off many more workers than expected in 2009 while keeping output generally steady.

Local examples include General Motors' Toledo Powertrain plant, which, despite laying off 300 workers in 2008, was judged by the Harbour Report to be the most productive powertrain factory in North America in each of the past two years.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Making the workplace more efficient increases profit margins, supports high wages, and keeps prices down - all desirable outcomes.

But as the current recession keeps worker anxiety high, bosses who add to stress levels by piling more work on fewer employees could have unintended and negative consequences for employee health.

And while we hesitate to give workers something else to worry about, both workers and their employers need to be aware of the negative effects of job-related stress.

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