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Is Your Work Making You Sick?

Are you an ambitious high-flier? Great for your career, but it could mean you're more vulnerable to heart disease, chronic stress and bruxism.

Are you ambitious and highly competitive, a corporate high-flyer who values achievement and status, and for whom perfection comes as standard? Would others describe you as workaholic, possessing a quick temper, and impatient to the point of being hostile to your colleagues? If so, you may have what psychologists call a Type A personality. While this can be great for business – such attributes have no doubt propelled you to the top of your game – it may also be damaging your health.

Corporate high-flyers are richly rewarded, but those corporations also demand their pound of flesh: Herculean workloads, 16-hour days and chronic stress exact a heavy toll. Type A is a set of psychological character traits developed in the Fifties by cardiologists investigating a possible link between stress and heart disease.

A key component of the diagnostic, which includes being hard-driving, demanding, and secretly insecure about your own status, is “hostility” – shorthand for a borderline anti-social personality. Go-getters with an unusually aggressive approach to doing business are most prone to what one cardiologist termed “hostility-related heart attacks”.

A high-pressure workplace can put a massive strain on the cardiovascular system. Elevated levels of cortisol and adrenalin, hormones that control the body’s response to stressful situations, make the arteries expand and the heart race as blood rushes to the muscles.

While the latest research indicates that only Type As displaying the “hostility” component of the personality have a higher risk of coronary heart disease, all stress junkies in the group are putting their wellbeing at risk. New studies suggest that Type A personalities may be prone to a host of illnesses that had been hitherto unnoticed.

As a group, Type A personalities find it hard to switch off, which can adversely affect moods and sleep patterns. Periods of stress and anxiety can also cause muscular tension. In contrast, Type B people are more relaxed, less competitive, and therefore at lower risk of such ailments.

A recent report by the British Dental Health Foundation also singled out financial sector workers – classic Type As – as being prone to bruxism, a stress-related teeth-grinding whose upsurge has been linked to job insecurity during the recession. Those who grind their teeth are often unaware of doing it, as it mostly occurs during sleep, in bursts lasting up to two hours in total a night. The grinding can cause severe oral pain, as well as splitting headaches and eating problems. Those badly affected may crack their teeth beyond repair and require regular painkillers, which bring further complications.

Over the past 18 months, one dental practice in central Edinburgh had seen an increase of almost 20 per cent in bruxism, especially among patients working for the city’s banks, fund managers and financial services firms.

The pressure put on Type-A professional women has also been shown to affect fertility levels. Last year, Prof Elizabeth Cashdan, an anthropologist at the University of Utah, said that go-getting lifestyles can cause a shift in a woman’s hormonal balance which leads to oestrogen, the female hormone, being replaced by androgens, a group of hormones which includes testosterone, and which is associated with strength, stamina and competitiveness. The hormonal imbalance can then lead to body-shape changes which make fertility more difficult.

However, it is high-flying men who are most prone to Type A-related illnesses. Executive coach Lisa Wynn has worked with “super-driven” Type A people in companies such as IBM and O2. “They see a straight line to success, and just go for it. Those Type-A attributes clearly help you get ahead, which is why these guys run their own businesses or head up large corporations.

“However, they often have very high levels of cortisol, which makes you feel more anxious, and guzzle coffee, junk food and chocolate – all those things that keep you running but also make you crash and crave more,” says Wynn.

Jonathan Jay, 38, who runs a multi-million-pound business training company, can testify that anger and irritation are natural by-products of a 100-hour working week. “I’ve always put myself under huge pressure,” he admits. “When I was trying to get my business to take off 10 years ago, I worked more than 80 hours every week. I was under the misconception that long hours equal success.”

To get his company started, Jay sacrificed both diet and downtime. “I often forgot to eat, and when I did it was rubbish. And I was so hyped up, I couldn’t sleep. I had terrible chest pains and eventually collapsed while giving a presentation.” He blacked out for just a few minutes, but that was long enough to shock him into action.

“My consultant told me it was just stress, but that next time might be more serious. That was a massive wake-up call. I re-evaluated my life and changed the way I did business, working smarter, not harder.”

Michael Rice, a former chartered accountant and quintessential Type A, also learnt the hard way about the health problems that come from life at the top. “I used to be at my desk by 7am and thought it was a half day if I left before 10pm.”

As the work piled up, his health plummeted. “I put on three-and-a-half stone, was smoking 40 cigarettes a day, and had terrible breathing problems. I ate rubbish and couldn’t sleep at night. I was at the top of my game, but my health just went down the drain.”

Luckily, Rice’s wife, a GP, told him enough was enough. “She used to say that I didn’t have blood in my veins, just nicotine and caffeine. But beyond the jokes, she was really worried about my stress levels and hypertension.”

Heeding her advice, Rice resigned, setting up his own firm, Trixster, which produces executive exercise bicycles. “Stressed-out Type As are now my target market,” he says.

According to Dr Tony Massey, medical director of wellbeing consultancy Vielife, a healthy work/life balance can bring Type As even greater rewards. “Plenty of people with enormously successful careers figured out early on the importance of setting aside time for themselves,” he says.

“There’s good research to show that executives who work long hours but have a nutritional diet, are physically active and get adequate sleep will actually be more productive.”

March 22, 2010

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