It’s Not Your Job to Fix Your Work Stress

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When Cate Lindemann began having strange pains in her jaw and tightness in her chest one morning in July 2020, she was no stranger to work stress, depression, and burnout. As an attorney for a big law firm in Chicago, she’d spent years working long hours and prioritizing work before all else in order to become one of the few women to make it to partner.

When she was pregnant with her third child, for instance, she’d even worked through debilitating morning sickness, calling difficult clients from bed some mornings. And she felt so much pressure to argue a motion that she “pushed through” pregnancy-related pain and went to court. She wound up going into labor early a few days later. “You don’t stop to say, ‘This is so wrong. I’m not going to do it,’ ” Lindemann said. “You just do it. And I think that goes for a lot of people in a lot of jobs. They just suck it up and do it.”

Just sucking it up landed Lindemann in the emergency room that July morning. She was having a heart attack. At 39. More precisely, Lindemann was having a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD—a tear inside an artery that carries blood to the heart. SCADs affect primarily women in their 40s and 50s. They’re little known, not easy to diagnose, and can be fatal if not treated promptly. Doctors aren’t sure what causes a SCAD. But they do know that one key factor is extreme stress. Or, in Lindemann’s case, work stress.

“My job made me sick,” she said.

Just sucking it up at work is, in fact, taking an enormous—and largely invisible—toll on American workers. Chronic work stress is actually so high and is associated with so much ill health (like cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes) and misery (like depression, anxiety, insomnia, and a 76 percent higher risk of missing work because of a diagnosed mental health disorder) that one meta-analysis of more than 200 studies found that work stress costs about $190 billion a year in health care costs. (In recent years, for instance, GM has spent more on health care than on steel.) Work stress can take years off one’s life and has become, technically, the fifth leading cause of death in the United States.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulates and tracks many workplace hazards like being exposed to toxic chemicals or whether it’s safe to labor in a coal mine. But OSHA doesn’t keep tabs on what researchers call the “psychosocial stress” that is ubiquitous in many workplaces: long work hours, work-family conflict, toxic bosses, uncertainty, unemployment, lack of health insurance. The higher the job demands and the less control, the more that leads to job strain and work stress. The more the effort at work doesn’t match the reward, the more the stress is compounded.

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