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2/19/2014

McDonalds Mocked for Remarkable Stress Hormone Discovery?

Banksy gives foot massage 
to relieve an executive's stress. 

New York City minimum wage workers have organized at FastFoodForward.org, thinking that McDonalds is going to give them a raise. They are just poor people complaining about poverty, so to get attention, these activists decided to mock McDonalds. It’s not rocket science and the company is fair game. 

The headlines at Salon.com caught my eye: McDonalds tells workers to ‘sing away stress’ and ‘chew away cares’ … Stress hormone levels rise by 15% after ten minutes of complaining … giant corporation warns employees.


Pulled from the web the day after Christmas, the “McResource Line” must have been the work of consultants hired by HR. 

How else can you explain why a company that takes pride in cooking with healthy low-acid Canadian rapeseed oil (canola) would advise that olive oil can prevent the blues?  

Maybe they were trying to send a message to B.B. King?

The employees were also told:  “two vacations a year can cut heart attack risk by 50%.” 

To put that into perspective, it is said that meditating twice a day for 20 minutes can reduce the risk by 47%.  Add that together with a vacation, and you are almost down to no risk at all. 

Of course, that conclusion serves only to illustrate that risk reduction, expressed as a percentage, is not a useful statistic. The Heart, Lung and Blood Institute message is more direct:  stop smoking, get up off the couch, and stop eating that minimum-wage-worker diet

What is lost in the mockery is the obvious: if McDonalds were to give workers two weeks paid vacation a year, plus two twenty-minute meditation breaks per day, McDonalds would have a much healthier workforce and would enjoy all of the attendant cost savings.  

An even more remarkable and perhaps essential discovery is to be found in the company’s comment about “stress hormones.”  

First, McDonalds was obviously not trying to discourage employees from lawfully voicing concerns or complaints.  McDonalds has been sued over things like hot coffee, so surely they know about retaliation laws

McDonald’s would not say to employees: “if you complain, you will be punished - your stress hormones will rise in the next ten minutes.” 

The conclusion, however, actually makes sense.  

You would expect an increase in the slower-acting, longer-lasting stress hormones (“glucocorticoids”) after ten minutes of any type of “complaining.” These hormones are like steroids and can be measured from a saliva sample. 

I learned that from “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” by Stanford Biology and Neuroscience Professor Robert M. Sapolsky, a recognized and definitive text on the biopsychosocial complexities of stress.

Briefly and oversimplified,  fast-acting, short-lasting stress hormones like adrenaline (epinephrine) are released when life is either exciting (good) or alarming (bad). 

This initial activation is often called the “fight or flight” response.  Sapolsky notes that in medical schools, it is called “the four F’s of behavior - fight, flight, fear, and sex.” 

Sexual arousal is like fear to the extent that the same "prepare-to-take-action hormones" are released.

If fast-acting adrenaline was bad for you, then having good sex would be the same as being chased by a lion, in terms of stress at least. What is different is that after sex, you might relax and think about having something to eat.  After being chased by a lion, you don’t relax and you think about being eaten. 

The longer-lasting steroidal hormones are the ones that do harm over time, especially if you have to run from the lion everyday and think about it every night. 

So what McDonalds has discovered could actually be a fundamental and perhaps universal workplace rule. Simply put, if a worker has a concern and it is not resolved in ten minutes, the worker will suffer adverse impact. 

It is always hard to stand up - it is stressful - and those who do complain are a company’s most valuable employees.  They are the ones who will tell you when something is wrong, before it gets worse. They are the ones who might mention, perhaps, that their low wages sometimes cause them to experience resentment at work. 

With these observations in mind (i.e., voicing complaints can cause harmful distress; happy employees make for happy meals), McDonalds could profit by implementing a new “ten minute employee concern, response and resolution rule.

To get proper credit and to make it easier to understand, McDonalds could call it the Golden Arches Golden Rule:  As you do unto shareholders, do also unto workers.”



Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.