Too many Americans are trapped in toxic jobs, a problem employers and employees need to take more seriously. Jeffrey Pfeffer, an organizational behavior professor at Stanford who wrote the book Dying for a Paycheck, found through his research that poor management in U.S. companies accounted for up to 8 percent of annual health costs and was associated with 120,000 excess deaths every year.
Your body may know before you fully do that your job is to blame for your stress symptoms, sending you red alerts that you are not okay.
You can’t sleep
“A lot of times the first thing we’ll hear about is sleepless nights,” said Maryland-based clinical psychologist Monique Reynolds of the Center for Anxiety and Behavior Change. “People report either not being able to sleep because their mind is racing or not being able to stay asleep. They wake up in the middle of the night thinking about their to-do list.”
A few restless nights is not a huge deal, but if it becomes a pattern, that may be a sign your job stress has become toxic.
“If it’s consistently related to work, that is a sign that something is off-balance,” Reynolds said.
You get headaches
Your muscles tense up to guard your body from injury. When you see the workplace as a danger zone, it keeps your muscles wound tight, according to the American Psychological Association. Chronic tension in the neck, shoulders and head can be associated with migraines and tension headaches.
“Stress creates physiological symptoms, and that manifests as pain,” said Reynolds.
Your muscles in general ache
When your job is toxic, it can feel like you’re fighting off a wild tiger at your desk. Under a perceived threat, your brains flood your system with adrenaline and other stress hormones.
“Our nervous systems in toxic jobs are constantly on edge,” Reynolds said. “We are constantly anticipating, ready to react to an unpleasant boss or co-worker.”
If you are always typing “just following up” emails with your shoulders hunched and your jaw clenched, this could be a sign that your job is impacting your health.
Your mental health gets worse
Reynolds noted that increased stress can exacerbate existing mental health issues. “Someone who might be a worrier in a really toxic work environment; that worry will often exacerbate to cross the clinical threshold,” she said.
If you feel like your boss is always out to get you, your mental health pays a price. One 2012 analysis of 279 studies linked perceptions of organizational unfairness with employee health complaints such as overeating and depression.
E. Kevin Kelloway, the Canada Research Chair in Occupational Health Psychology at St. Mary’s University, said that unfair treatment at work can cause us outsized stress.
“Injustice is a particularly toxic stressor because it strikes at the core of who we are,” he said. “When you treat me unfairly you attack my dignity as a person —essentially saying that I don’t deserve fair treatment or to be treated the same as others.”
You get sick more often
If you are catching colds constantly, consider how you are feeling about your job. A large body of research shows that chronic stress can compromise the immune system, making you more susceptible to illness.
You lose interest in sex
How you spend your time reflects what you value. When you bring your work home with you, your relationships can suffer. The American Psychological Association notes that when women have to juggle professional stress on top of their ongoing personal and financial obligations, it can reduce sexual desire. For men, this chronic stress can result in lower testosterone production, which in turn leads to lower libido.
“There has to be a certain amount of relaxation in order to allow the arousal feeling to arise,” Reynolds said. “Then there’s the time factor. People report not having enough time to have sex.”
You are tired all the time
This is fatigue, a bone-deep weariness that no nap or weekend lie-in seems to cure.
Kelloway noted that “there is no set way that individuals react to a toxic workplace,” but he said that fatigue is in the range of physical symptoms employees may feel.
Toxic jobs can create a cycle that drains us, said Pfeffer. “You’re feeling overwhelmed, because you’re working too long, and you’re working too long because you’re feeling overwhelmed,” he said.
Your stomach is acting up
Indigestion, constipation, bloating can all be associated with stress, because stress impacts what the gut digests and can also change our gut bacteria, which in turn impacts our mood.
It’s why you may get stomach pangs when you are upset, said Kelloway, who experienced this himself in one toxic job.
“About six months in I started to notice that every Sunday afternoon I developed a pain in my stomach. It was not the symptom but the timing (just as I was starting to think about what I had to do on Monday morning) that alerted me to the connection to the job,” he said. “All symptoms went away when I quit the job and moved on to something else.”
Your appetite changes
Your appetite is closely linked to your brain. Under acute stress, your fight-or-flight response releases adrenaline, telling your body to suppress digestion to focus on saving us from a perceived danger, according to the Harvard Health Letter. Under long-term stress, though, your body’s adrenal glands release and build up cortisol, a hormone which can increase hunger. When your job is causing long-term emotional distress, you may turn to food for comfort.
Harvard also reports that eating sugary foods may blunt stress-related responses and emotions, which is why they’re often seen as comfort foods ― but that’s an unhealthy habit you should avoid.
What you can do to combat this
Take breaks. After your body goes on high alert to defend you from unreasonable demands and bad bosses, you need to give it time off.
“When we don’t give our nervous system an opportunity to relax and reset itself, it starts to cause long-term damage,” Reynolds explained. She said that companionship outside of the workplace, meditation and exercise can help to offset the stress symptoms.
Reframe your negative thinking. One of the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy is that how you think can change how you feel. “It’s not possible for everyone to switch jobs, but we can focus on the situation that we can control,” Reynolds said. We can use mindfulness to manage our unhelpful rumination about how the presentation went or what our colleagues are thinking about us.
Leave. See this as the warning that you need to get a new job or else. Pfeffer said that long hours, absence of autonomy, uncertain scheduling and economic insecurity at jobs are all factors that contribute to a toxic workplace environment that employees need to leave behind, not just cope with. “You need to fix the underlying problem, not deal with the symptoms,” he said.