AC WP RSCN4338 ENH2Recently I read Elizabeth H. Blackburn’s 2017 book The Telomere Effect: a revolutionary approach to living younger, healthier, longer.

Throughout it, I couldn’t help thinking how relevant this is to shy people.

Dr Blackburn is one of the leading researchers into the genetics of the telomere, that device at the ends of your DNA strands that protects them from deteriorating (often compared with the plasticized ends of shoelaces designed to keep them from unraveling).

To put Dr Blackburn’s findings in a nutshell (a dubious proposition in a book so filled with interesting information):

  • Each time a cell in your body dies and has to be replaced, a telomere is shortened.
  • The shorter your telomeres are (you can be born with shorter or longer telomeres), the sooner you will begin to age, and the shorter your life will be.
  • The more stress you experience, the shorter your telomeres become.

The third finding was a bit of a shock to me. But experiments show that prolonged stress that generates chronic tension and anxiety – think of what goes on in most workplaces – shortens telomeres dramatically.

In my 40 years working in the insurance claims field, at least 30 of those years were lived in chronic heavy stress.

That’s partly because most insurance companies I’ve worked in (approx. 30 since I did a lot of contract work) have always believed in trying to perform the maximim amount of work with the minimum amount of staff. This crude approach to efficiency doesn’t work at all. Instead it generates mistakes and inefficiency, increases stress, increases employee time off, etc.

We think we live in an age of enlightenment. Meanwhile this kind of management thinking began to accelerate in the 1980s. High stress workplaces are everywhere now.

The introduction of computers during the 1980s should have reduced the amount of work required and made life easier for workers. Instead, companies have used computers to increase the complexity of work. By the year 2012 when I left the insurance claims business, simply creating a cheque to pay a claimant took 4 times as long as it did in the 1970s.

Also, in the 1970s, employees had more autonomy. The computerization of offices has allowed supervisors to have 24 hour access to an employee’s files. They are literally watching over your shoulder all day now. Stress has increased dramatically.

When I stopped working in 2012 my blood pressure dropped almost overnight by 20 points.

From conversations with people in other fields – banks, hospitals, government, etc – I gather that the same thing goes on everywhere.

And so, as I read Blackburn’s book, I began to worry about the damage that may have been done to so many of us, especially to shy people. Shy people usually suffer more anxiety in workplaces than non-shy people. Do we then have shorter telomeres?

Well, sometimes we do. But we don’t have to. Dr Blackburn reveals that there is a silver lining for us in the findings of telomere research.

It turns out that people who are conscientious about their work have longer telomeres.

Why? I can’t find Dr Blackburn’s thoughts on that, but looking back on my own work experience, I think it may be that working concientiously you produce work that you can be confident about, which allows you to be more confident in the challenges that lie ahead.

What is conscientiousness? Dr Blackburn says,

Conscientiousness is the measure of the degree to which a person is organized, how careful a person is in certain situations, and how disciplined he or she tends to be.

If you are in any doubt whether you qualify, she has a simple 10 point test on page 131 that should settle any doubts you might have on that score. I can’t emphasize how much there is in this book for you.  There is a lot of advice for protecting and even restoring your telomeres.

Anyway, the conscientous people that I have encountered in workplaces have almost always been shy people. I wish I could go back and tell them about this.

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