Working your way to type 2 diabetes: Job stress affects health

stockbroker trading share prices stress stressful job bald man
Having autonomy, as stockbrokers do, seemed to offset some of the effects of a highly stressful job.
Credit: Getty Images

When it comes to type 2 diabetes, a stressful job can be as risky for your health as a bad diet and no exercise.

A new German study found that even without the classic typical factors for type 2 diabetes — obesity, family history, high blood pressure and cholesterol, inactivity — people working too many hours with little control over their tasks were over 60 percent more likely to develop the disease than unstressed workers.

The findings add to substantial evidence that job strain represents a serious health risk on its own, researchers say.

“What we first suspected was that job strain might be related to lifestyle variables — that people who are under high job strain would smoke or maybe eat unhealthy food more — but this was not the case,” says lead study author Karl-Heinz Ladwig, of the Technical University in Munich.

Not just a coping problem

Past research dating back decades has established that jobs with a combination of high demands and low control over how the work is done create a high-stress environment long linked to heart disease and death.

The underlying cause is generally thought to be a mixture of physical wear-and-tear from the chronic stress itself and unhealthy coping behaviors like smoking, drinking and overeating.

To explore the connection further, Ladwig’s team followed more than 5,000 men and women in Germany for over 12 years, none of whom had diabetes at the beginning of the study. Participants answered surveys on their environments and were divided into groups:

low job strain: demanding job with more control; undemanding job
high job strain: demanding job with less control

Almost 300 cases of type 2 diabetes developed during the follow-up period. The largest proportion (almost 7 percent) came from the high job-strain group, according to the study. 

The results held after the team accounted for age, sex, family history of diabetes and weight. The difference did shrink somewhat when researchers factored in socioeconomic status and physical intensity of work, but remained significant. 

That suggests the stress itself is causing the effect, the researchers speculated, and the likely culprit is the stress hormone cortisol, which can alter the way the body regulates blood sugar.


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