New Study Looks Into How Workplace Stressors & Distractions Affect Health

mbg Senior Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care."
Busy concentrated mother using laptop with weepy baby on the lap near active kid on a chair at modern home

You're working on an important assignment when you get a message from your boss with an urgent ask. Then, you have to jump into another meeting with a co-worker who has a time-sensitive question. By the end of the day, you're exhausted, behind, and overwhelmed—when another ping comes in.

It's an all-too-familiar scene for many people, and your heart rate probably sped up just reading about it. While we all instinctively know how stressful work can be, a group of Swiss researchers recently looked into exactly how the demands of the office influence our minds and bodies. Here's what they found.

Quantifying the impact of workplace stress.

For their study, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology (a very long name for the study of hormone fluctuations) this month, the team pitted 90 healthy college-age participants in "a realistic but controlled group office environment."

They were split into three rooms, each person given their own computer. From there, the participants were asked to complete tasks like scanning, sales calculations, and scheduling on behalf of a fictitious insurance company.

Then, the interruptions came: Over the 85-minute study, one group was exposed to social stressors (they were told that they would have to make their case for a promotion shortly) and workplace interruptions (their managers pinged them with questions multiple times via chat). The second group was only exposed to the social stressors, and the third group was a control.

Participants were hooked up to a heart rate monitor the whole time. They also provided saliva samples and answered questions about their stress levels six times throughout the study. The results? "We found significantly higher levels of perceived stress, greater decreases of calmness as well as a significant worsening of mood in the stress conditions," the study reads. Those who were exposed to social stress and workplace interruptions also had a higher heart rate during and after interruptions, compared to the control group.

Interestingly, they found that participants who fielded work interruptions had higher spikes in the stress hormone cortisol but experienced less fear about the upcoming promotion interview. This indicates that the quick release of cortisol—also known as the fight-or-flight hormone—had a positive effect on psychological stress in the short term. However, previous research shows that unmanaged chronically high cortisol can contribute to weight gain, headaches, anxiety, depression, insomnia, gut issues, and more.

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How to apply these findings to your own office.

OK, so work can be stressful—not an entirely new finding. But this research does serve as an important reminder that little distractions do affect us, even if we've grown used to taking them in stride.

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While more research still needs to be done to look into how people at various ages and with different health conditions handle workplace pressure, it's not a bad idea to limit stress where you can in the meantime. Take it easy on yourself, take breaks when possible, and keep some tools at your desk to help you relax.

They can take the form of small handwritten affirmations, reminders to breathe (this breath routine will kick your parasympathetic system into high gear, and it's great for long workdays), or calming herbs and supplements.* mindbodygreen's hemp multi+ was formulated with stressful days in mind: It combines cannabinoid-rich hemp oil extract (think CBD but supercharged) with other calming ingredients like hops, rosemary, and black pepper for a steadier mood.*

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The bottom line.

Workplace stressors and distractions take a toll on the body, and new research found that they were associated with increased heart rate, dampened mood, and spiked cortisol levels. While there will always be aspects of the workplace that are out of our control, surrounding ourselves with positive affirmations, reminders to breathe, and calming supplements can help keep us stay a little steadier amid the chaos.

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