Stress can kill you.


While the image of the tough-talking, high-powered boss may be appealing in the movies, in real life your body is a finely tuned machine. Chronic stress can wreak significant physical damage that can shorten your life. And if you’re dead or lying in a hospital bed, you’re in no position to be an innovation leader!

How does stress damage you?

When you encounter a stressful situation—whether real or perceived—your body quickly prepares for either “fight or flight.” This ancient response was programmed into our ancestors thousands of years ago, and it worked well to keep us alive. But it was designed as a strictly temporary measure, not a lifelong condition of existence.

When you’re faced with a threat, stress hormones cascade into your bloodstream so that you can respond quickly and with strength. Your brain commands your pituitary gland to discharge adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) into the bloodstream. The adrenal gland is also activated, releasing the hormone epinephrine. These chemical messengers trigger the production of the hormone cortisol, which increases blood pressure, blood sugar, and suppresses the immune system.

There’s much more, but you get the idea. Your body chemistry changes significantly.

Then, when the threat has passed, your hormones return to normal, and you’re back at your comfortable “baseline” levels.

But what happens if the stress is chronic? If you feel threatened day after day, month after month?

Long-term chronic stress and the elevated levels of these powerful emergency hormones cause damage to tissues in the body, leading to inflammation. You can experience symptoms such as headaches, a stiff neck, ulcers, and allergies. Over time, too much stress can accelerate the aging process, make you feel exhausted, damage your adrenal glands where cortisol is produced, harm your immune system, and even shrink vital brain tissue, resulting in problems with concentration and memory loss.

If you’re suffering from any of these symptoms, you’re not going to be able to stay ahead of the pack.

Insight: Working Long Hours Can Put You Into an Early Grave

This isn’t just conjecture; there’s evidence to back it up.

For an average of 11 years each, Dr. Marianna Virtanen, M.D., an epidemiologist at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and University College London, and her colleagues followed more than 6,000 British civil servants who had no history of heart disease. The participants were all drawn from a larger, ongoing study known as Whitehall II that had begun in 1985. They tracked how many hours per day, on average, the subjects worked at their various jobs, and they also took blood pressure readings.

During the study, a total of 369 people had heart attacks (some of them fatal) or were diagnosed with heart disease after seeking medical attention for chest pain.

Compared to people who worked from seven to ten hours a day, those who worked 10 to 12 hours a day had a 56 percent increased risk of heart disease, heart attack, or death.

These workaholics tended to sleep less than their more relaxed counterparts, and reported having less control over their work, having more demanding jobs, and experiencing more stress. They were more likely to exhibit “Type A” personality traits, including irritability, aggressiveness, and a “chronic, incessant struggle to achieve more and more in less and less time,” according to the study.

“If you work long hours,” said Dr. Virtanen, “the fact is that you may be exposed to higher stress levels and you do not have enough time to take care of your health.” And, doctors “should include long working hours on their list of potential risk factors” for heart disease.

Karōshi: “Overwork Death”

In Japan, death by overwork is so common there’s a name for it: karōshi. The term was first coined in 1978 to refer to an increasing number of people suffering from fatal strokes and heart attacks attributed to overwork. During the Bubble Economy of the mid to late 1980s, the term became common when several high-ranking business executives in their prime of life suddenly dropped dead without any previous sign of illness.

In Japan’s hyper-aggressive economy, employees often work for 12 or more hours a day, six or seven days a week, year after year. And it’s not just the sheer numbers of hours but the stress of the workplace that matters. As well as physical pressure, mental stress from the workplace can cause karōshi. During periods of economic recession, stress increases as leaders demand more from their employees.

Sources of workplace stress include:

  • All-night, late-night, and holiday work.
  • Pressure to achieve impossible goals set by the company.
  • The shock of unexpected layoffs, as employees who have worked for a company for many years and see themselves as loyal to the company are suddenly told to resign because of the need for staff cutbacks.
  • The guilt of managers, who are often told to lay off workers and are torn between protecting their staff and implementing a draconian corporate restructuring policy.
  • Mandatory after-hours socializing and drinking with company colleagues. Salarymen are often invited to nomikai, or “drinking parties,” to build better connections between coworkers in the company.

Executives in the United States—at least those working outside of Wall Street—may not face quite the same pressure, but the fact remains that if you want to be an innovation leader, you need to regularly stop and rest!