Top Cause Of Workplace Sickness Dubbed 'Black Death Of 21st Century'

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It's been dubbed the "21st century equivalent of the Black Death." In the U.K., it's the most common reason employees take long-term sick leave. It costs American companies $300 billion a year. In Japan, it's a fatal epidemic.

It's stress.

Stress has beaten out stroke, heart attack, cancer and back problems as the main reason British workers take four or more weeks away from the job, according to a new report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. The Japan Ministry of Labor began publishing official statistics on "Karoshi" (death from overwork) in 1987, but the first case was documented in 1969, when a worker dropped dead of a stroke. He was 29.

The symptoms of stress are similar to those of someone in withdrawal from an addictive drug: finding it difficult to focus; losing your sense of humor; irritability; and shortened temper. Stress can also lead to under- and overeating, as well as smoking and drinking to excess. And in its most extreme forms it can result in stomach and bowel problems, heart disease and stroke.

"Cortisol, the hormone that the body releases under stress, is the strongest immunosuppressant known," write evolutionary biology researchers Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. When Sheldon Cohen studied the sleep habits of 153 healthy men and women and then exposed them to the virus that causes the common cold, he found that individuals who slept less than seven hours per night were three times as likely to get sick.

Human beings haven't evolved to cope with the levels of work in modern society, they claim. For a healthy and long life, people should model themselves on our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

"If you hunt or gather just enough low-fat food to forestall serious hunger pangs," they write, "and spend the rest of your time in low-stress activities, such as telling stories by the fire, taking extended hammock-embraced naps, and playing with children, you'd be engaged in the optimal lifestyle for human longevity."

Unfortunately, that kind of lifestyle isn't particularly practical today, and increasingly less so. In what Mother Jones magazine dubs the "The Great Speedup" middle-income and professional Americans have been working more and more hours since the late 1970s. In that same time period, a full-time American male worker has seen his real wages decline.

The definition of speedup is "an employer's demand for accelerated output without increased pay." It used to be a household word, but today it's so normal it's hardly acknowledged.

The recession has only piled on the stress. And not just for millions of laid-off workers, but for the ones lucky enough to keep their jobs too. While economic production recovered to near-recession levels months ago, Mother Jones notes, the employment rate has not. Not hardly, and particularly not in the U.S. That lost productivity has been made up by those still clinging to their posts.

In the U.K. report, stress was a more common affliction at companies that had announced redundancies.

America is also notoriously frugal in its vacation time. We're one of only five countries in the world without legally mandated paid vacation time, and over a quarter of American workers don't receive any. We're one of only six countries without paid maternity leave (the others are Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Samoa, and Swaziland). We're one of only handful of countries in the world that doesn't guarantee any paid sick days. When 46 percent of Americans have to skip work from sickness, they lose the day's wages, and risk being fired.

Americans work more than most people in the world, 122 hours more a year than the British, and nearly 10 weeks more than Germans. And the U.S. economy has swelled, thanks to this labor, doubling in size over the last 30 years.

"We're not sharing in these productivity gains," says John de Graaf, the national coordinator for Take Back Your Time, an advocacy group pushing for paid vacation time and other worker protections, and the author of the forthcoming book "What's the Economy for Anyway?."

And the extra work has taken a toll on America's health. A 2007 study by Emory University's school of public health found that Americans 50 years or older were more likely to suffer from cancer, diabetes and heart disease than Europeans at the same age. "We have more chronic diseases in old age," says de Graaf. "And those are very expensive diseases."

To really battle stress, de Graaf believes we need to reduce our country's vast disparities in wealth. "Taming inequality is the most important thing. The top one percent is garnering nearly a quarter of all the income in this country. It's outrageous, really."

"There's no silver bullet here," he admits, but he believes increasing the minimum wage would be one powerful way to reduce the psychological burden on many Americans. Giving workers greater control over their hours would also go far. A law passed in Netherlands in 2000 allows employees to request a reduction in their hours, from five days to four, for example. Their wages are cut proportionately and their benefits pro-rated, but the employer must grant the request, unless it's at an intolerable financial cost to the company.

Such a bill would likely get strangled on arrival in America's political system. Not only does the lack of universal health care make such a law immensely more complicated, but America's political attitudes are in general more hostile to mandates on business.

De Graaf helped Rep. Alan Grayson draft his "Paid Vacation Act" back in 2009, which would, if successful, have required companies with more than 100 employees to offer one week of paid vacation time.

"We were attacked for that as if we were advocating the end of human civilization," says De Graaf. The bill found only five Democratic co-sponsors.

A few companies these days seem to understand the importance of workers' health and well-being to productivity and profits. Zappos, Patagonia, and a handful of other firms offer flexible policies to balance work and life, and have become sought-after destinations for young talent.

But this doesn't necessarily represent a tidal change.

"This is going to take rules," says de Graaf. "It's going to take legislation. We need regulations. A football game doesn't work if one team can go in wearing brass knuckles."

It used to be the oft-repeated dream of economists and philosophers that productivity could reach a point where human beings would only need to a work a few hours a day, and still provide for all their needs.

More than 200 years ago Benjamin Franklin wrote: "If every Man and Woman would work for four Hours each Day on something useful, that Labour would produce sufficient to procure all the Necessities and Comforts of Life, Want and Misery would be banished out of the World, and the rest of the 24 hours might be Leisure and Pleasure."

Since Franklin's day, efficiency has increased mightily, but the 20-hour work week is too ludicrous an idea to pass the lips of any mainstream politician.

In an interview in last month's Businessweek, Mitt Romney said "the primary role of the government is to encourage the innovation and risk-taking and entrepreneurship of the American people."

"That would come as news to Thomas Jefferson," says de Graaf. "He said on a number of occasions that the only purpose of government was to increase the happiness of its citizens."

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