Job stress refers to the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker. Job stress can lead to poor health and even injury.

The concept of job stress is often confused with challenge, but these concepts are not the same. Challenge is an important ingredient for healthy and productive work. It energizes us psychologically and physically, and it motivates us to learn new skills and master our jobs. When we face a challenge and handle it well, we feel relaxed and satisfied. The importance of challenge in our work lives is probably what people are referring to colloquially when they say, "a little bit of stress is good for you.” In reality, while challenge can be good for personal growth, stress is never good by any measure. One form of stress under investigation at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is job strain, which occurs when high job demands combine with low job control.

As part of its commitment to ensuring a safe and healthy work environment for all workers, NIOSH studies job stress to understand its causes and association with health effects. Most importantly, NIOSH studies how to prevent job stress and related health effects from occurring in the first place. In this issue of NIOSH Research Rounds, we feature five recent research projects on this complex and costly issue for today’s workers and workplaces.

Job Control in Many Occupations Linked to Decreased Risk of High Blood Pressure

Does your job provide a variety of tasks? Do you have the opportunity to develop your own special abilities? Are you able to make work-related decisions on your own? Do you have the freedom to decide how you do your work? If so, you may have a job that gives you a high level of control. This kind of control correlates with a decreased risk of high blood pressure in many occupations, according to a study by NIOSH with university partners.

In this study, workers with the highest level of job control were less likely to have high blood pressure than were workers with the lowest level of job control. This association occurred in many different job areas, including management/professional, sales/office, and production. However, in the case of healthcare support workers (for example, home health aides, nursing assistants, dental assistants, medical transcriptionists, pharmacy aides, and phlebotomists), the pattern reversed; high job control correlated with a greater risk for high blood pressure. Although overall a greater proportion of men than women had high blood pressure, more women in healthcare support and two blue-collar job areas (production; and installation, repair and maintenance) had high blood pressure. The results were similar across racial/ethnic groups.

Investigators examined the association between occupational information on 2,517 voluntary participants and blood pressure data collected by the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA), funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. MESA recruited study participants from six communities, in Forsyth County, North Carolina; Manhattan and Bronx, New York; Baltimore, Maryland; St. Paul, Minnesota; Chicago, Illinois; and Los Angeles, California. The study oversampled racial/ethnic minorities to ensure sample diversity: 38% were white, 28% were black, 23% were Hispanic, and 11% were Chinese-American. Their average age was 57 years, and all worked at least 20 hours per week at the time of the study, from 2002 to 2004. Overall, the findings from this study suggest that increasing job control could help decrease the prevalence and incidence of high blood pressure among workers. Further research could help clarify why women in some occupations are more likely than are men to have high blood pressure and why health care support workers did not have lower blood pressure when their levels of job control were higher.

For more information, click the titles below:

Job Strain, Occupational Category, Systolic Blood Pressure, and Hypertension Prevalence: the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (Full article available after November 1, 2016)

Organization of Work: Measurement Tools for Research and Practice