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Ph.D. student Robert-Paul Juster in the research rooms at Fernand-Seguin Research Centre in Montreal's Louis-H. Lafontaine Hospital. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)
Ph.D. student Robert-Paul Juster in the research rooms at Fernand-Seguin Research Centre in Montreal's Louis-H. Lafontaine Hospital. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

Part 1: Stress: public-health enemy No. 1? Add to ...

Across the country, people are experiencing increasing levels of stress. Experts say our health will suffer.

In a small, windowless room at the Louis-H. Lafontaine Hospital in Montreal this winter, 80 employees, from psychiatrists and nurses to custodians and support staff, will undergo a series of psychological tests designed to stress them out.

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Before and after each test, the subjects will be asked to spit into a small plastic vial, their saliva used to detect the hormones that are released when the brain is faced with a stressful situation.

The point of the study? To see how results vary according to what jobs we do - and whether those of us with less flexibility to juggle work and family demands, with less control over our schedules, have chronically higher levels of stress.

If this is true, the researchers believe their findings will not only indicate something about what we do for a living, but about our future health - with serious side-effects for public, as well as personal, priorities. "I hope I live to see the day when we have a ribbon for stress research like we do for breast cancer," says Sonia Lupien, director of the hospital's Centre for Studies on Human Stress, which will conduct the study. "The cost of stress is amazingly high."

Across the country, people are experiencing increasing levels of stress. A poll commissioned by The Globe found that Canadians endure, on average, 14 stressful episodes a week. That might not come as a surprise to the researchers behind the latest report from the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, which recently revealed that one working person in five is experiencing high levels of "crunch time" - periods when they feel overwhelmed by overcrowded inboxes and jammed weekly schedules."We are paying a steep price for this time crunch," Roy Romanow, chair of the agency's advisory board has warned. "We're less healthy, both physically and mentally. We have less time for personal pleasures. And we're more dissatisfied with the quality of our lives."

The former Saskatchewan premier has already called for a national dialogue on public policy. Now, a growing chorus of scientists is calling for action as well.The first order of business is to reduce our stress level, something that a growing body of evidence suggests can no longer be dismissed as a psychological problem easily solved by having a deep tissue massage or spending a few days on the beach.

Chronic stress caused by taking on too much - both at home and at work - has been linked to a wide range of serious health concerns, from Alzheimer's and depression to obesity, diabetes and heart disease. In Canada, hypertension is the No. 1 reason people go to the doctor, and last year accounted for almost 20.7 million medical appointments.

The physical and psychological ailments brought about by stress are believed to be a major reason absentee rates for full-time employees have shot up 43 per cent in the past 10 years. Canadians miss far more work days for personal reasons than both their British and American counterparts. At least one think tank estimates that stress-related absences cost employers more than $10-billion a year, with an additional $14-billion impact on the health-care system.

The situation has become so serious that scientists such as Dr. Lupien want to reframe work-life balance as a public health issue. She hopes to see her saliva test become part of an annual checkup, monitored by physicians as frequently as cholesterol and blood pressure. "It's difficult to get this addressed in the doctor's office because they see stress as a yuppie thing," she says. "But this is what predicts disease."

STRESS, ON A CELLULAR LEVEL

For scientists who study work-life balance, the stress triggered by the lack of control over our lives is an evolutionary response, not a state of mind.

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