Link Between Occupational Stress and Gastrointestinal Illness

Stress at work is particularly taxing considering people spend a majority of their day at the workplace. Workplace stressors have been linked to a variety of diseases, ranging from heart disease to anxiety and depression. A new study by Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Krista Howard, psychology graduate student Madeline Giblin, and psychology alumna Rachael Medina found an association between occupational stress and yet another scary health issue: gastrointestinal illness.

The study, published in Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, asked K-12 public school teachers to report on several occupational factors such as job control, teacher attitude, school climate, and overall job satisfaction. They were also asked to fill out a health inventory assessing their perceived stress levels, neurological health, joint health, and gastrointestinal (GI) health among other factors. The gastrointestinal health portion evaluated symptoms such as gastroesophageal reflux disease, persistent stomach or abdominal pain, persistent diarrhea or constipation, and gallbladder problems. Participants who reported any of these symptoms were labeled as having GI illness.

Participants who reported low levels of job satisfaction and job control were more likely to report GI illnesses. Those with higher perceived stress levels and negative overall attitudes towards their job were also more likely to report GI illnesses. Also, males posed a much lower risk of developing GI illnesses than females. When evaluating ethnicity, African Americans, Hispanics and other ethnic groups were found to report GI illnesses at a higher rate.

To offset the risk, the study makes recommendations: “[T]here should be a focus on developing interventions aimed at reducing or eliminating teacher-specific job-related stressors. Such changes could improve teachers’ attitudes, which could ultimately improve their physical and psychological health.”

The study provides insight into a relationship between occupational stress and gastrointestinal illness that could very well be present in other professions.