Stress at work increases risk of developing asthma, according to major new research

Those with high job insecurity have a “roughly 60 per cent excess risk of asthma”

People fearful of losing their jobs are 60 per cent more likely to develop asthma for the first time as a result of their stress, according to a major new study.

An international team of researchers analysed data from more than 7,000 workers and, even allowing for other risk factors such as smoking and being overweight, discovered that work-related stress raises the risk of developing asthma.

“This study has shown for the first time that perceived job insecurity during the recent economic crisis may increase the risk of new-onset asthma in adulthood,” states the paper, published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

The research was conducted by experts at the University of Düsseldorf, the University of Amsterdam, and Massey University in New Zealand.

It supports previous studies pointing to a link between the development of asthma and stress, according to researchers. The use of temporary contracts and other “flexible forms of contracting” as well as downsizing, are cited as factors which “increase job insecurity among employees”.

The study adds: “The economic crisis in Europe, which started in 2008, has accelerated this development and has been paralleled by increased perceptions of job insecurity in most European Union countries.”

Those with “high job insecurity” had a “roughly 60 per cent excess risk of asthma” compared with those who thought the chances of losing their job were low or non-existent.

The findings are based on data from more than 7,000 working adults, who responded to the German Socio-Economic Panel Study, an annual survey of the German population, in 2009 and 2011. Between these years, 105 new cases of asthma were diagnosed among the survey group. Those worried about losing their jobs were far more likely to develop asthma – at 2.12 per cent compared to 1.3 per cent of people who had no such worries or felt the risk was low.

More than five million people in Britain are treated for asthma, costing the NHS around £1bn a year (Rex)

And the researchers warn of a “significant trend of increasing asthma incidence with increasing perceptions of job insecurity”. For every 25 per cent increase in the perceived threat of job loss, the risk of asthma rose by 24 per cent.

The findings also “provide a possible explanation for the increased prevalence of respiratory symptoms during the recent economic crisis in the UK.”

More than five million people in Britain are treated for asthma, which kills more than a thousand people every year and costs the NHS around £1bn a year to treat.

Responding to the new research, Dr Samantha Walker, director of Research and Policy at Asthma UK, said: “Stress is a well known trigger for asthma symptoms; 69 per cent of people with the condition say it causes them to experience asthma symptoms that may lead them to have a potentially life-threatening asthma attack, but there is limited evidence to date to link the stress associated with job uncertainty to the development of asthma.”

She added: “Years of under-funding of asthma research means that there is still much for us to learn so we urge researchers to explore these findings in more detail.” 

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said: “Falling real wages mean that families are struggling to make ends meet when they have jobs so it's no wonder that many are so fearful of unemployment and their health is suffering as a result.”

“This study reminds us not to underestimate the risks to health and wellbeing of the government’s economic policies,” she warned.