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Business of Stress: Rise of the Type A Machines

PieroDellaFrancesca_Malatesta

The now irreversible and accelerating developments in communication technology (multiple e-mail addresses available from any platform, high-speed anywhere Internet access, smart mobile phones, tablets, e-readers, and what not) have enabled greater flexibility and mobility (e.g., teleworking, telecommuting) but they also have removed traditional boundaries between different roles in life (work, family, leisure). Thanks to these ubiquitous and always-on hardware devices and the software tools they provide, there often is no solution of continuity between work and non-work states, between being somewhere dedicated to work activities and being somewhere else, where relationships or relaxation are possible.

In addition, short-term employment, work on time-limited projects, and working two or even three part-time jobs simultaneously are becoming increasingly more common. These trends may indeed be producing  beneficial effects in terms of greater task variety and flexibility, but also an increased risk of stress due to work overload, disruption of natural circadian patterns, role conflicts, and lack of time for relationships, for rest and energy replenishment through sleep or relaxation activities.

The individual executive, rather than the company, is now tasked with setting appropriate boundaries between work and other roles in life. This is a particularly challenging task for the executive who may be classified as exhibiting Type A behavior. What is type A behavior and why is it becoming increasingly problematic?

Pissarro_1897_Montmartre Type A behavior is defined by an extreme sense of time urgency, frequent impatience with one’s self and others, high competitiveness, and frequent aggression and/or hostility (either in the form of overt outbursts, or constricted and internalized through tight behavioral control).

Work conditions in most industrialized countries, given the current availability of communication and connection devices, more than ever emphasize the importance of maximum efficiency, high productivity, a faster pace of work output, and competitiveness. These work features are believed to contribute to the development and reinforcement of the Type A behavior pattern.

Why is this a problem? Aren’t higher productivity and efficiency desirable outcomes? From the company’s point of view, yes, they most definitely are. This explains why significant resources are being devoted by an increasing number of companies toward making this always-on-the-job state a reality for their executives. It is seen as a competitive advantage over other companies that (presumably) shut down at a reasonable hour and do not work on weekends.

Most executives proclaim to “love” this uninterrupted access to the marketplace and the instantaneous availability that is demanded of them. There are however potentially serious health consequences, unless the executive can set reasonable and appropriate boundaries.

Individuals classified as type A are particularly affected by the challenges posed by this work environment in terms of elevated blood pressure, increased heart rate, higher blood lipids, and near-continuous catecholamine output. Intensive, frequent, and sustained activation of these physiological stress responses contributes to the atherosclerotic process and to blood clotting. This prolonged state of arousal is likely to form a connection between type A behavior and the elevated risk of myocardial infarction. A longitudinal study by Barefoot et al., found that medical students with high scores on the Cook-Medley hostility scale of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) had a six fold increase in mortality when followed up 25 years later, mainly due to coronary heart disease.

To be more specific, the negative psychosocial and socioeconomic factors created by type A behavior are associated with increased risk of serious illness and mortality because of the elevated activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) system and the increased secretion of the stress hormone cortisol. Additionally, a very high workload, such as regularly working more than 10 hours of overtime per week, is also associated with markedly elevated cortisol levels. Prolonged and sustained activity of the HPA system is related to a series of endocrine and metabolic effects, causing, among other things, increased storage of fat in the abdominal region.