It is interesting to compare how measures of psychological stress differ across cultures. The Whitehall study, a longitudinal study to determine the social correlates of health, has been going since 1967. Since it evaluates civil servants with the same access to healthcare in the same general living circumstances, it has been able to control for a number of potentially confounding factors. Whitehall I found increased mortality and increased morbidity (poor health) in male subordinate workers.
Whitehall II found that workers under 50 with self-reports of high stress had a 68% increased chance to have heart attack or angina. It’s not the actual demands of the job, as the “high octane” managers and executives do not see worse health outcomes, but the perception of a lock of control in subordinate workers that is correlated with poor health outcomes. Consistent with that suggestion, men who were administrators or executive were less likely to die compared to the average, and that correlation remained steady across age cohorts. Therefore, in this British sample a sense of job control was found to be negatively correlated with the likelihood of coronary heart disease in a dose-dependent manner.
In Japan, although karoshi is a occupational hazard, the culture regarding work is somewhat different. Nomure et al (2005) found that there was actually an inverse relationship between job stress and the risk of cardiovascular disease in one Japanese sample, which is surprisingly different and suggests that perhaps people are more comfortable with a less control in the workplace. However, the mean age of their cohort was only 30, which raises some questions.
Wheatley et al (1995) gave subjects across 3 cohorts in Great Britain (GB), the US, and China a questionnaire about stress differences in daily life. People from GB said that the most stressful aspects of their lives were social habits, people from the US said that the most stressful aspect of life were sexual problems, and the Chinese reported stress to be due mainly to sleep disturbances. Overall, China was the least stressed of the three cohorts. So, different aspects of daily life were reported to be stressful across these three cultures. This has been found by other studies as well. Acadmemic stress is a more significant stressor in Korea and Japan as compared to GB (Colby, 1987). Black South Africans report less stress from uncertainty in the workplace than do White South Africans (Booysen, 2000). Since daily hassles can have a similar or even greater impact on health than major life events, these indices matter.
The fact that stress is a cultural phenomenon answers some questions, but raises many more. Is minimizing psychological stress actually the most important outcome for some cultures? There is reason for individuals to rank it highly, given that it correlates highly with health outcomes and possibly happiness as well. If so, are they able to measurably reduce it? The most intriguing possible outcomes of this research regard whether it is possible to develop strategies that allow us to minimize stress without hindering other life goals such as contributing to society and securing a good career.
Colby, BN. 1987 Well-being: A theoretical program. American Anthropologist, 89:879-895.
Fairhurst UJ, Booysen I. 2000 Health services foster community cohesion, the case of the Northern Province, South Africa. IGU Regional Workshop: Commission on Gender and Geography, Beyond Tolerance: Social and Spatial Coexistence – Lessons of Gendered Exclusions. Tel Aviv, Israel, 28 May – 1 June.