When Hillel Finestone was a medical student, he found himself assisting a salty-tongued veteran surgeon in two hemorrhoid operations. As they were moving a groggy patient over, the surgeon muttered, “Another two cases of ‘executive asshole syndrome.’ ”
After the operation, the medical student asked about the unusual scientific label his mentor for that day had used. “It’s a term I made up a few years ago for these particular guys. They are hard-driving businessmen, wearing nice suits, drinking too much booze with their cronies in the bar to calm themselves down, wolfing down their breakfasts and lunches so they can get back to work. They are always in a rush,” he explained.
“So they wake up every morning, and they usually didn’t have enough water to drink or fibre to eat the day before. Their main liquids were coffee and booze. They then really have to go, defecate. Instead of sauntering to the toilet and relaxing a few minutes, they are men on the move. Their mind is already on their morning appointments, and a little bit of sweat is accumulating under their armpits because they are worried about being late.”
The executives are rushing through one of the most natural, normal processes in the world, and physically hurting themselves in the process, he pointed out.
Dr. Finestone didn’t take exact notes, of course, but he recalls that conversation in his book, The Pain Detective: Every Ache Tells A Story. Today he’s director of stroke rehabilitation research at Élisabeth Bruyère Hospital in Ottawa and an associate professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa. He is classified as a physiatrist, focusing on helping people with pain and recovery, and often the pain people bring to him can be linked to the office.
“The workplace can cause a lot of physical pain and emotional pain. There is a multiplier effect when physical pain and emotional pain occurs at the same time,” he says in an interview.
In essence, our workplace is a risk factor for our health. We’re all familiar with risk factors like smoking, alcohol, and diet, and how they can contribute to ill health. But he adds to that some more obviously work-related issues like lack of sleep, lack of exercise, improper ergonomics, and stress.
People call him “the pain detective” because like a detective he doesn’t accept the first or even second answers people give to him when they arrive with pain. Yes, their back may hurt, and he can help with some relief. But he wants to know what caused that back pain, and why the healing may be delayed. And often the office plays a role, unnoticed.
He points to someone who falls down the stairs at home or has a car accident. Clearly, not a workplace injury. But they may be working in an office that has been reorganized, with colleagues leaving and not being replaced. Work is piling up, as is stress. The pain won’t go away, and the office might well be the reason.
A review of the scientific literature he conducted with two colleagues for The Clinical Journal of Pain , revealed that slower or delayed wound healing is associated with psychological stress. That has occurred in animal studies with mice and socially isolated hamsters, but also with stressed older adults, adults with leg wounds, and surgical patients. “Simple injuries can linger longer,” he says. “We have to pay attention to how the emotional feelings can affect the physical body.”
Of course, the office can more directly, in a physical way, affect the body. There was great concern in the 1980s over repetitive strain injury associated with office workers who spent too much of the day at the computer or typewriter. Dr. Finestone these days sees lots of patients who have injuries not from typing but from using a computer mouse, the constant small contractions in the hand and arm creating pain. “You never really relax on the mouse. You are overusing those muscles,” he says. “The muscles get fatigued and injured. They don’t recover as you’re back at the mouse the next day.”
He recommends taking a five-minute divorce from your relationship with your mouse every 30 minutes. If typing causes pain, he recommends using the backs of the finger to hit the keys, since that doesn’t involve the same musculature and can become comfortable after a trial period. He uses a headset after recommending it to patients who experienced pain from contracting neck muscles to hold the phone between their ear and shoulder.
He often gives patients prescriptions for the workplace to provide a better ergonomic set-up, to alleviate problems such as computer monitors not being properly aligned with the head because of desk or chair heights. In cases where the workplace impact is psychological, coaches and employee assistance programs can be of help.
So be alert. If your body aches because of poor ergonomics, make some changes. If your physical pain intensifies after the boss shouts at you or a gruelling day, there’s a link. If you are not sleeping, exercising, or eating properly because of work overload, that’s a risk factor as well for your health. Change won’t be easy, but it should be sought.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter