Secretaries Under Siege

They're the backbone of offices across the country. But repetitive strain and lack of control over their work put secretaries at high risk for stress-related illnesses.

In "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying," the 1960s feel-good flick based on the hit Broadway show, young secretaries sashay across the screen singing one of the musical's showstoppers: "A Secretary Is Not a Toy." The song is a playful commentary on the demeaning, pre-feminist attitude toward secretaries: Perfectly coiffed, high-heeled office workers warn their bosses that "a secretary is not a thing/wound by key, pulled by string."

In 1980, secretaries in the comedy hit "9 to 5" sang a different tune. An egotistical, lying, lecherous boss -- played to blustering perfection by Dabney Coleman -- is eventually hogtied and lectured on sexism by his secretary (Dolly Parton) and two female office assistants (Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin). He isn't released until he renounces his harassing ways and agrees to give the hard-working women the raises and respect they deserve.

Times have changed somewhat in recent years, but not completely. In the 1980s, when Sheryl Oring worked as a secretary at a real estate firm in Boulder, Colorado, she may not have felt like a toy or a thing, but she often did feel like a ping-pong ball bouncing back and forth between oblivious managers competing for her time. The stress of the job finally convinced her to finish her college degree so she could pursue another career.

"I worked in an office where there were some really nice people, but there were also a couple of jerks who expected you to drop anything you were doing and give them your full attention at once," she recalls. "It didn't matter if you were doing something for another person in the office. They wanted contracts typed right that minute."

Today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 4.3 million secretaries in the United States. Widespread computer use has created new physical hazards, including repetitive strain injuries (RSI), like tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, for office personnel. And though the roles secretaries play have changed, the stress levels have not. Rick Stroud, a spokesman for the International Association of Administrative Professionals, says that advances in technology and changes in corporate structure mean that secretaries may be working under more pressure than ever before.

"In today's offices everyone wants things done faster and cheaper," says Stroud. "And a lot of offices are downsized to the point that office personnel are taking on more advanced and complicated roles. So they are having to do more with less."

In centuries past, of course, 'secretary' denoted a trusted advisor or confidant, almost always male -- a meaning that survives today only in the titles of members of the president's cabinet. When it comes to office help, the term can still evoke the clichd image of a sex siren with a steno pad or a forbidding matron with her hair in a bun, even though many women in these posts now perform key administrative and financial functions. Because both of these stereotypes can be humiliating as well as damaging to a person's self-esteem and professional pride, Stroud says the word "secretary" itself is slowly falling out of vogue. Other common titles these days, he says, are administrative assistant, office manager, information coordinator, and executive assistant, among others.

According to Stroud, a common misconception is that a secretary just does the typing. "But it's more of a para-professional position now rather than a strictly clerical one, he says. The public perception has lagged behind the profession."

Too much job stress

Indeed, many who do this work complain that although the boss depends on them utterly to keep projects running smoothly, they earn a fraction of what executives do. Add a secretary's often modest salary to the lack of control that accompanies the job's ever-changing demands, and you've got a good formula for stress. In one federal survey of the nation's 10 most stressful occupations, secretarial work ranked second only to coal mining and construction.

How stressful the job is, of course, often depends upon the particular workplace and the level of interaction with the public. A secretary at a large New York brokerage firm says that much of the pressure arises because the firm is dealing with large sums of clients' money. And when the market is volatile, as it has been in recent years, the situation can get tense.

"Clients can be very demanding because of all the money involved," she says. "Some of them yell. Of course, it's more stressful when the market is down than when it's up. I'd say the ratio of pleasant people to unpleasant ones is about 50-50." Indeed, a brokerage house secretary in New York City recently wrote Ann Landers to complain about being threatened, abused, screamed and cursed at, and generally "treated like dirt" by intolerably rude clients.

Sidelined by RSI

Even if the climate at work is congenial, secretaries are always at risk for repetitive stress injuries.

Deanna Green had surgery twice to treat overuse injuries she developed from answering constantly ringing phones and doing data entry for 17 years at a San Francisco area trucking company.

A loyal employee, who suffered for years because she didn't want to inconvenience her boss or jeopardize her paycheck, Green began using ice packs on both shoulders until she could no longer stand the pain. She finally asked her supervisor for a headset that would eliminate the need for the hammering motion of putting the receiver up and down hundreds of times a week. She said her headset was so poorly made it gave her roaring headaches and the clients couldn't hear her speaking.

Green's doctor told her she had tendonitis and made some suggestions about changing her workstation around, but it didn't help. The 37-year-old woman knew she was in trouble when she tried to take a pan of chicken out of the oven and her right shoulder gave way. The glass pan fell to the floor, shattering and splattering hot chicken and grease everywhere. Although Green is a shop steward for her local office workers' union, she was under the mistaken impression that if she filed a worker's compensation claim she would have to stop working. As a single mother supporting two daughters, she says she couldn't afford to miss a single paycheck. However, if she had filed a claim, she would have been examined by a company doctor and the extent of her injuries may have been determined sooner -- and perhaps some accommodations would have been made.

She finally did file a worker's compensation claim, and both the insurance company doctor and her own physician agreed on the diagnosis: She had bone spurs in the rotator tendon in her right shoulder and a tear in the rotator cuff in the left shoulder caused by repetitive motion. A second surgery has finally sidelined her from her job. Now she wonders if she'll recover well enough to continue doing secretarial work or any other job that involves computers.

"I'm very angry," Green says now. "After going through all this, I understand [the importance of] ergonomics. The company should have told me there were precautions I could take. I helped them for all these years. They should have been there to help me."

Secretaries at higher risk of heart disease than bosses

If repetitive motion and poor ergonomics threaten secretaries' physical health, so does the lack of control over their jobs. Conventional wisdom once portrayed a hard-driving male executive as being in greater danger of a heart attack than his employees, but studies suggest that his secretary may be at higher risk. A 1997 study published in Clinical Psychiatry News reported that having little or no control over your job increases the risk of coronary heart disease, regardless of economic status.

Since studies of secretaries show they feel little or no control over their work, one might expect them to be at greater risk of heart attack. And that's exactly what the 1997 study found. Researchers found that bosses and managers reported feeling considerable control over their work; the clerical and office support staffers, far less. In turn, men and women who held clerical and office support jobs were far more likely to develop heart disease than their bosses or managers. Female clerical and office support workers, as it turned out, were 1.47 times more likely to develop heart disease than women at the highest job level.

This research reflects the results of earlier medical studies, including one of more than 700 women in Framington, Massachusetts, which concluded that female clerical workers were almost twice as likely to suffer from heart disease as were women in other jobs.

Relieving job stress

The early warning signs of job stress include headache, difficulty sleeping and concentrating, short temper, stomach problems, job dissatisfaction, and low morale, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The federal agency suggests that managers tackle the problem on two fronts: through stress management training and changing work conditions that cause overwhelming stress (excessive workload, isolation, conflicting expectations, lack of family-friendly policies, and so on).

Secretaries who work in a large firm may want to approach management in a unified group to talk about ways to reduce stress, and in particular, ways that employees could participate in decisions affecting their jobs. Meanwhile, seeking support from family, friends, and coworkers is valuable, as is finding your own ways to relieve stress. An article in The Secretary, a trade magazine, advised office personnel to maintain "a list of at least 25 short activities that will interrupt the stress frenzy that is making your blood pressure rise. Included may be a kaleidoscope to twirl when you need a change of scenery [and] the phone number of colleague who always makes you feel better after a few minutes' conversation." Deep breathing, stretching, and taking a brisk walk on your lunch hour may also help.

Some stress is not related to overwork, however. Despite advances made in recent years, female secretaries remain prime targets for sexual harassment because of their relatively low position in the office hierarchy. As required by law, most companies have adopted rules forbidding sexual harassment, and some of the more overt sexist behaviors that many women find offensive and intrusive, like suffering off-color jokes or getting patted on the behind, have become less of a problem. But old attitudes die hard, and some office personnel still struggle to work amid an ambience of sexist banter or innuendos, if not explicit demands for sexual favors.

"Hopefully that's happening less and less as people's awareness grows that harassment is not to be tolerated by anybody," says Stroud. "To combat the problem, employers must definitely have policies in place so anybody going through this has an avenue to complain to a supervisor or manager. It still happens, but the good-old-boy networks are finally getting the message."

Tips for office workers:

  • Take frequent breaks to stretch and walk around. This will help reduce the strain on your body and help prevent RSI.
  • Adopt an upright posture when sitting; reduce glare by installing an anti-glare screen cover; make sure your workstation is set up so that your wrists are straight, not flexed forward or backward when keying; and make sure that your computer monitor is not above eye level.
  • If you regularly feel pain, numbness, heaviness, or tingling in your arms and hands, you may have an RSI. Left untreated, these aches that start out as relatively minor pains can eventually make it difficult for you to use your hands at all. Be sure to see your doctor and talk to your employer at the first signs of a problem. With early treatment, conditions like tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome are reversible, and you'll be unlikely to need surgery.
  • Pay attention to the early warning signs of job stress, including headache, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating, short temper, upset stomach, job dissatisfaction, and low morale. Try figuring out what job conditions are bothering you and brainstorm with your coworkers about how to change them. Tackling the source of job stress works best, according to NIOSH and 9 to 5: The National Association of Working Women. At the same time, be sure to keep your support network strong, take time to relax outside of work, and incorporate stress-reducing activities such as yoga and walking into your daily routine. If you've tried everything and still feel chronic work-related stress, consider looking for a new job.

Further Resources

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

Check out NIOSH's comprehensive report on job stress at

http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/99-101/

American Psychological Association.

The group's report, "Stress: How and When to Get Help," can be found at

http://www.apahelpcenter.org/articles/article.php?id=27

Occupational Safety and Health Administration

For more information on ergonomics and RSI, visit OSHA's Web site at

http://www.osha.gov

References

Interview with Deanna Green

Interview with Cheryl Oring

Interview with Rick Stroud, International Association of Administrative Professionals

"Low job control and risk of coronary heart disease in Whitehall II (prospective cohort) study," BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal); February 22, 1997; 314:558

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Information Page, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. Secretaries and Administrative Assistants. Occupational Outlook Handbook 2010-2011.

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