Q: My job is super stressful. Can that actually affect my health?
Yes, it can—even in the short term. For starters, long hours and a giant workload often lead to poor lifestyle habits, like skimping on physical activity or skipping lunch. Any type of stress also raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which, if it remains elevated, can result in weight problems. Constantly being preoccupied with work responsibilities might also keep you up at night, and even brief periods of sleep deprivation can impair cognitive functioning, including your attention level or memory. Studies have also linked job stress to higher risks of depression and heart disease.
I’m not saying you should call your boss and quit on the spot: Stress is a normal part of working, even if you have your dream career. Interestingly, a recent study in Personnel Psychology found that folks with high-stress jobs may be 34 percent less likely to die younger than people with less demanding roles, as long as the worker has some level of freedom or control, through decision-making or dictating her own work flow.
The bottom line is, you need to recognize if your physical or mental health is getting stampeded by work and make adjustments where you can. Take short breaks periodically each day to keep your mind at ease. Chat with a coworker (about something other than that upcoming presentation), walk a lap around the office, or sit quietly with your eyes closed and take a few slow, deep breaths. About that walk—a recent study suggested that being physically fit can help buffer the harmful effects of job stress on heart-health factors like cholesterol levels, so don’t let your workouts slide.
Finally, if you feel truly overwhelmed, consider sitting down with your boss to come up with a plan that allows you to create more work-life balance without letting your job suffer.
Health’s medical editor, Roshini Rajapaksa, MD, is assistant professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine.