The pandemic has caused much uncertainty, anxiety and stress, touching on every aspect of our lives. The impact of work stressors on the severity of COVID-19, particularly among essential workers, is discussed in an editorial published online in the April 2021 Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and co-authored by UCI’s Peter Schnall, professor emeritus of environmental & occupational health, and Marnie Dobson Zimmerman, assistant adjunct professor.

Workers in manufacturing, transportation, grocery and agriculture require face-to-face contact with the public or close proximity to each other, they note, increasing their chances of contracting the virus and experiencing worse outcomes compared to the general population. These health and safety conditions are compounded by more frequent exposure to stressors such as high job demands, job insecurity, little sick leave and work-family conflicts, according to the authors. Many of these workers are people of color and immigrants who may live in multigenerational households, are more likely to earn low wages and have less access to healthcare, they write.

Research has shown that exposure to these stressors can change the physiology of the body over time, leading to mental health problems such as depression, as well as increased risk for obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, they write. People who have one or more of these chronic conditions are more likely to suffer acute COVID-19 symptoms and higher death rates.

Their recommendations for increasing workplace safety and health conditions include providing personal protective equipment such as masks, improving ventilation and offering adequate sick leave.

Pouran Faghri, adjunct full professor of environmental health sciences at UCLA, and Paul Landsbergis, associate professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University, are also co-authors.