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Working Too Much?

If you're putting in significant time at work - 55 hours or more per week - you may be bumping up your risk of stroke. New research from the UK suggests that stroke risk rises by 33 percent among people in Europe, the U.S. and Australia who work much more than the usual 35-40 hours per week. It also found that the risk of coronary heart disease was 13 percent higher among those whose workweeks exceeded 55 hours. The findings were based on data from about 600,000 workers after researchers controlled for other risks including smoking, physical activity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. However, study leader Mika Kivimaki, of University College London, said his team found "no differences between men and women, or between older people and younger ones, or those with higher or lower socioeconomic status." Although the findings were statistically significant, a 55 percent increased risk isn't as scary as it may seem. Here's why: if the normal risk of stroke is one person in 100, a 55 percent increase means that 1.55 people of 100 are at risk. With a 13 percent increase, if 1 person in 100 normally has a heart attack, the risk rises to 1.13 per 100.

Is Stress At Work Killing You?

A team of researchers from Harvard and Stanford Universities examined 10 categories of job-related stress – including long hours, fear that you might lose your job, and lack of health insurance – and found they were linked to health problems that contribute to 120,000 deaths a year. Their conclusion suggests that on-the-job stress takes more of an annual toll than diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease or the flu. Underlying the deaths are other contributing conditions such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and mental health problems. The researchers also reported that people who worked long hours reported more high blood pressure, and noted correlations between occupational injuries and long working hours the previous week. They commented that the stress of long hours, shift work, perception of unfairness in the workplace and conflicting priorities between work and home were linked to worse health and unhealthy habits - including smoking, alcoholism and over-eating. The cost of all these health problems added up to $125 to $190 billion dollars a year, between five to eight percent of national spending on health care. The researchers suggested that cost-conscious employers could trim some of those expenditures by giving attention to the sources of employee stress. 

Benefits of a Window at Work

If your desk is near a window in your office, you probably sleep longer and better at home, get more physical activity, and overall have a better quality of life than co-workers whose desks aren’t so well positioned. Those findings come from a new study by researchers at Northwestern Medicine and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who examined the effects of exposure to natural light in the workplace. All told, the study found that employees lucky enough to sit by a window received 173 percent more white light exposure at work and slept an average of 46 minutes more nightly than those who had no natural light exposure during working hours. Increasing evidence shows that exposure to light during the day, particularly in the morning, benefits health through its effects on mood, alertness and metabolism, according to study senior author Phyllis Zee, M.D., a neurologist and sleep specialist at Northwestern Medicine. Study participants included 49 day-shift office workers, 27 who worked in windowless surroundings and 22 whose workplaces had windows. Some wore devices on their wrists to measure and monitor light exposure, activity and sleep. The researchers said that for natural light at work to have an effect, your desk should be within 20 to 25 feet of walls containing windows.

My take? These study results support what we’ve known for some time - that exposure to natural light is beneficial to health. Sleep expert Ruben Naiman, Ph.D., notes that many people get insufficient light during the day, particularly in the morning, and most of us spend the bulk of our waking hours indoors in what Dr. Naiman describes as relatively dampened light. Healthy levels of light naturally energize us, drawing us outward into the world, and regular patterns of light exposure also help us maintain normal circadian cycles, Dr. Naiman says. If your day-to-day routine and work environment don't provide much exposure to natural light, you might consider using a light therapy box – special devices that aim to replicate sunlight.

Phyllis Zee and M. Boubekri et al, “Impact of windows and daylight exposure on overall health and sleep quality of office workers: a case-control pilot study.” Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, doi: 10.5664/jcsm.3780

What Does Your Clean (or Messy) Desk Say About You?

A messy desk may bolster creative thinkingDon’t let the neatniks get you down if your desk is less than pristine. A new study from the University of Minnesota suggests that while there are practical benefits to keeping a neat desk, a messy one may bolster creative thinking. Researchers asked a group of college-age students to fill out some questionnaires in a clean and orderly office or a messy, paper-strewn one. Afterward, the students were given the chance to donate to a charity and to take an apple or a chocolate snack as they left. Those who worked in the neat offices gave more to the charity than the ones who worked in the messy environments, and were more likely to take apples instead of candy bars. Next, the students were assigned to either a clean or messy office and asked to come up with novel uses for ping pong balls. Both groups came up with the same number of ideas, but impartial judges viewed the ones from study participants assigned to the messy offices as more creative. The study was published online in the September 2013 issue of Psychological Science.

Kathleen D. Vohs, et al, “Physical Order Produces Healthy Choices, Generosity, and Conventionality, Whereas Disorder Produces Creativity,” Psychological Science, August 1, 2013, doi: 10.1177/0956797613480186

What Volunteering Can Do for Your Health

Volunteering can improve your mental health and lengthen your lifeHere’s the latest on the health benefits of lending a helping hand in your community: volunteering can improve your mental health and lengthen your life. A research team from the U.K.’s University of Exeter Medical School combined data from 40 scientific studies to conclude that volunteering is good for you, but they note that the question of whether volunteering is actually the cause of increased health and longevity has not been answered. Some of the studies reviewed by the Exeter team show a 20 percent reduction in all-cause mortality among volunteers compared to non-volunteers. Other health benefits reported by the volunteers who participated in the studies reviewed include lower levels of depression, enhanced well-being and higher ratings of life satisfaction. Nonprofessionals in the various studies claimed that their motives for volunteering were to give something back to their communities or help an organization that has helped them, but the researchers wrote that volunteering can also be used to gain work experience or to widen social circles. More research is needed to establish that the health benefits associated with volunteering actually stem from the practice of volunteering, the investigators said. Their study was published in the open access journal BMC Public Health.

Suzanne H Richards et al, “Is volunteering a public health intervention? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the health and survival of volunteers.” BMC Public Health, 2013

Why Walk to Work?

Walking to work can reduce high blood pressureIf you walk, ride a bike or take public transportation to work, you’re less likely to be overweight compared to people who drive to work or take a taxi. You’re also 17 percent less likely to have high blood pressure. And walkers are 40 percent less likely to have diabetes. These findings come from a British survey of 20,000 people across the UK. Researchers at Imperial College London and University College London determined that 19 percent of working age adults who drove, taxied or rode a motorbike to work were obese compared to 15 percent of those who walked and 13 percent of those who rode their bikes. The survey showed that cyclists were about half as likely to have diabetes as drivers, and that transport to work varied widely with location within the UK. For example, in London 52 percent of those surveyed used public transportation, while only five percent did in Northern Ireland. The findings were published on August 6, 2013 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Anthony A. Laverty and Christopher Millett, et al “Active Travel to Work and Cardiovascular Risk Factors in the United Kingdom,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine,