When it comes to the health effects of chronic stress, the type of stressor matters a lot. At work, most stressors are one of two types: hindrances or challenges.
Hindrances are stress factors that just get in the way and thwart performance. Examples are an abusive boss, constant interruptions, and harassment. These stressors don’t do anything to help employees. Their impact on performance is purely negative.
Meanwhile, challenges are stressors that help workers achieve, learn, and grow. Example are time pressure or a high work load. As workers successfully manage these situations, their performance improves.
“Hindrances are relatively more detrimental for health compared to challenges,” says Kimberly French. The assistant professor in the School of Psychology examined the relation between stressors and metabolic risk, as measured by levels of insulin, glucose, cholesterol, triglycerides, and other indicators of metabolic disorders that could lead to bad health outcomes, such as heart disease.
In recent analysis of data from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States (MIDUS) II, French and colleagues found that among three behaviors associated with chronic work stress – eating, smoking, and alcohol consumption – eating and smoking were the most likely behaviors of workers exposed to hindrances. In addition, workers chronically exposed to hindrances were more likely to eat high-sugar and high-fat foods. Consequently, exposure to hindrances was also associated with increased risk for metabolic disorders.
Workers exposed to challenges were more likely to consume alcohol. French suggests drinking alcoholic beverages may be viewed as a reward for accomplishment at work. The study was published in the Journal of Occupational and Health Psychology.
The findings have practical implications. “Eating healthy foods is really important,” French says. “Be aware of what you eat especially when you are exposed to chronic hindrances.”
Meanwhile, employers could provide healthy foods rather than unhealthy snacks when workers are under pressure.
Another tip from French: Take positive action to avoid hindrances. “If you are experiencing frequent interruptions or irritating coworkers, modify your work day or focus on different projects,” she says.
Employers, on the other hand, should design the work place to minimize hindrances and increase challenges: explore how employees can take more responsibility; make sure they are not bored.