Dolly had it right: Working 9 to 5 (or 4 to 12 or all night long) can be a hard way to make a living. And when your job leaves you more depleted than rewarded no matter the hours, health risks can follow.
Researchers followed a group of more than 70,000 women in France over two decades, and found that those who reported having jobs that caused “high mental fatigue” were 21 percent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes compared to women who did not have mentally tiring jobs, according to the study published in the European Journal of Endocrinology. Even when the researchers excluded those women with traditional type 2 diabetes risk factors—they were overweight or obese, inactive, had a family history of diabetes, or smoked—the link between a stressful job and type 2 diabetes stayed the same.
How does stress increase your risk of type 2 diabetes? The exact mechanism is unknown. We do know, however, that during periods of stress, your brain directs the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline) into your bloodstream. Normally, once the stress is gone, the hormone levels drop.
The problem arises when you live with ongoing daily stress, like at the place where you spend at least eight hours every day. Whether that anxiety is caused by a frantic pace that leaves no time for a break, crazy overtime, a difficult boss–or a perfect storm of all of all three—chronic stress causes overproduction of cortisol. Over time, the excess cortisol contributes to high blood sugar, which can develop into full-blown diabetes.
Mental Fatigue is Real, and It’s Dangerous
Everyone feels tired and burned out at times, but “mental fatigue” is an actual medical condition, defined as stress and impaired thinking that develop after long periods of intense mental tasks. Certain types of work-related activities and situations are more likely to cause mental fatigue and stress, including:
- Required double-shifts, or long working hours without breaks
- Night shift work, or a changing shift schedule
- Jobs that require constant decision making or concentration
- Constant multi-tasking (“mental clutter”)
- Frequently changing or competing expectations and/or deadlines
- Frequent interruptions
- The expectation that you’re available by phone or email even when you’re not on the job
- Low-paying jobs or a pay disparity
- Difficult co-workers, managers, and clients
- A cluttered physical environment
You may also be contributing to your workplace stress with behaviors including:
- Overcommitting to tasks and projects
- Procrastinating on tasks and projects
- Striving for perfection
What You Can Do About Your Stressful Job
Certainly, you should address any physical risk factors you may have for type 2 diabetes: Lose 5% of your body weight if you’re overweight, control your carbs, get regular exercise, get enough sleep, quit smoking. All these lifestyle changes can significantly reduce your chances of–and sometimes even prevent—type 2 diabetes.
But, even if you’re a physically active non-smoker who eats well and maintains a healthy weight, and you have no other physical risk factors for type 2 diabetes, a tough job can increase your odds. According to the American Psychological Association (APA) annual Stress in America survey, a majority of Americans report the workplace as a significant source of stress in their lives.
Apart from quitting—and let’s face it, there’s no guarantee that a new job won’t be equally or even more stressful—what can you do? Many experts recommend a two-pronged approach that focuses on reducing workplace stress and protecting yourself from its physical ravages.
Tips to Reduce Stress at Work
- Keep a journal to track upsetting situations and be sure to note your thoughts, feelings, and responses to each one. Journaling can help you find patterns in the stressors and more effective responses.
- Establish boundaries to minimize interruptions. For example, you may be able to set aside times to turn off your phone, only check and reply to email during certain set times or have scheduled “office hours” for drop-ins and meetings.
- Schedule your most mentally taxing work for times of the day when you’re at peak energy and performance.
- Keep your physical workspace organized and have systems to organize your paper and electronic files, as well as your calendar and schedule.
- Take regular breaks throughout the day, and don’t skip lunch. (For an extra diabetes-busting benefit, consider taking a brief walk during breaks, or hit the gym for a midday workout.)
- Take advantage of employee assistance programs when available, or encourage your employer to join the increasing number of companies that offer stress management programs for employees.
- Work on your own, or with a counselor or therapist, to address any tendencies toward perfectionism, overcommitment, or procrastination.
Meditation Can Protect Against Stress
Even your best efforts may not be enough to lower your level of workplace stress. According to some doctors, you can learn how to protect yourself from the negative physical effects of stress, including the increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. While we don’t yet have scientific evidence that meditation reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, studies show that meditation can reduce glucose levels as well as cortisol, which are both type 2 diabetes risk factors.
“You can create an internal physiology to protect against stress,” says Herbert Benson, M.D, a distinguished mind-body professor of medicine at Harvard University and founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine. (In his groundbreaking book The Relaxation Response, he reframed the concept of meditation for a medical audience as an antidote to stress.) He asserts that meditation not only breaks the train of negative thoughts that generate stress but also creates physiological changes to protect you against stress.
“Recent research shows that a daily practice for just 10 minutes causes profound genomic and genetic changes,” Dr. Benson maintains. “We have studies showing the direct relationship between relaxation response practice and a reduced risk of many conditions such as chronic pain, migraine disease, and cardiovascular disease, among others.”
Dr. Benson recommends the following practices for reducing stress, among others.
Even things like playing an instrument, doing puzzles, and knitting can be useful, meditative practices. And for those with stressful jobs, Dr. Benson suggests “mini-relaxation response breaks” throughout the day, which can be as simple as sitting quietly, taking a deep, slow breath, holding that breath for a few seconds, and then letting it go.
Online Tools and Apps That Can Help
If you need ideas on relaxation response practices for work or home, here are some recommended tools:
Unyte Interactive Meditation This online program offers breathing techniques, immersive experiences, and real-time feedback, via a small transmitter that attaches to your ear. More than 100 different interactive relaxation experiences can be viewed on your phone, laptop, or tablet.
Color Mandala This website lets you color in a mandala online. You can also find pages to print and color at Coloring.com. One study found that coloring a complex geometric shape, like a mandala, could significantly reduce anxiety.
Calm App You can download the Calm app to your smartphone or tablet, and access hundreds of different guided meditations and breathwork sessions, with short programs suitable for work breaks and longer meditations for home use.