Let’s look again at Elizabeth H. Blackburn’s 2017 book The Telomere Effect: a revolutionary approach to living younger, healthier, longer.
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 (not easily done 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 shortens telomeres dramatically. Think of what goes on in most workplaces where stress on employees has been growing for decades.
In my 40 years working in the insurance claims field, at least 30 years were spent in chronic heavy stress. Because I spent much of that time working on a contract basis – I’ve worked in at least 30 companies – I think I can say that heavy stress is the norm, not the exception.
From conversations with people in other fields – banks, hospitals, government, etc – I gather it’s the same almost everywhere.
That’s partly because most companies and institutions have long believed in trying to perform the maximum amount of work with the minimum amount of staff. That crude approach to efficiency doesn’t work at all. Instead it generates mistakes and inefficiency, and increases stress.
There was an attempt to go the other way in the 1970s, but with the arrival of Ronald Reagan as president of the USA in 1980, companies everywhere began the retreat from humane work.
The introduction of computers during the 1980s should have reduced the amount of work required and made life easier for workers. Instead, computers were used to complexity of work. By the year 2012 when I left the insurance claims business, simply creating a cheque to pay someone took 4 times as long as it did in the 1970s. I know from my wife’s experience as a nurse that the same thing happened in hospitals.
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. That increased stress dramatically.
We think we live in an age of enlightenment, but think again. When I stopped working in 2012 my blood pressure dropped almost overnight by 20 points.
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, partly from being shy, and partly because shy people, generally, are more conscientious. They want to get the job done, and do it well.
What about autistic people? I’m less sure there. Many autistic people are shy, so I would expect them to experience similar stress. But there are people on the spectrum who are not shy at all. In your face confrontation suits them just fine. They don’t appear to suffer from anxiety.
Anyway, do shy people then have shorter telomeres?
Well, sometimes we do. But we don’t have to. Dr Blackburn reveals 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 than other people.
Why? That doesn’t appear to be known yet, but looking back on my own work experience, I think it may be that working conscientiously you produce work that you can be confident about, which allows you to be more confident in the challenges that lie ahead. If you can get the job done, you feel good. That’s why I, and almost all the conscientious people I have ever met, chose to work longer hours rather than let their files deteriorate. I always knew that this reduced anxiety for me.
But what exactly is conscientiousness? Dr Blackburn gives a definition:
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. That they can sometimes be rebuilt is good news for all of us.
Anyway, the conscientious people that I have encountered in workplaces have almost always been shy people. I wish I could go back and tell them all about this.