Is Your Job Heartbreaking?

Christine Haran,

Could your job be hazardous to your health? Before you say no, consider that you don’t have to be a skyscraper window washer or firefighter to risk your life on the job. Occupational research shows that high-stress jobs of any kind can affect your heart health, specifically your blood pressure levels, your ability to quit smoking and your chances of having a heart attack or heart surgery.

The role of workplace factors was studied in participants enrolled in the Belgian Stress Project (BELSTRESS), a large, ongoing study looking at the association between perceived job stress and health in men and women. Results from the BELSTRESS study were published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in March, and found that job stress, not surprisingly, raises heart disease risk.

In the study, 14,337 men between the ages of 35 and 59 with no particular health history filled out a job-strain questionnaire that asked them about the psychological demands of their job, such as time constraints and quantity of work; the social support they get from supervisors and coworkers; and the level of job control and decision latitude, or decision-making authority, they exercise on the job.

The BELSTRESS researchers followed the men for three years and discovered that your backstabbing coworker or an overly critical boss really could give you a heart attack. After adjusting their findings for heart disease risk factors such as age, smoking and diabetes, the researchers found that low social support at the office raised the risk of heart attack or heart surgery. While previous studies have found a link between decision latitude and heart disease risk, it was not seen as a risk factor here. The BELSTRESS researchers theorized this finding have been due to the short follow-up period; many people in high-stress jobs move on to other jobs within three years.

Yet tight deadlines, never-ending piles of work and low decision latitude were found to raise blood pressure levels in a study presented at the Fourth International Conference on Work Environment and Cardiovascular Diseases in March by Els Clays, of the department of public health at Ghent University in Belgium. This study, which used the same questionnaire, revealed a relationship between these job strain categories and blood pressure levels.

In this study, 126 men and women completed the questionnaire and wore an ambulatory blood pressure monitor for a 24-hour period on an average workday. The researchers found that people with high job strain had higher blood pressure levels—a major heart disease risk factor—during the workday and even when they were asleep.

In a third study of 2,821 people also presented at the Work Environment and Cardiovascular Diseases conference, the BELSTRESS researchers found that low decision latitude made it harder for men to quit smoking, regardless of how much money they made or how much they smoked. Job strain was not found to affect female workers’ ability to kick the habit.

So the next time you’re evaluating whether your job is good for you, especially if you already have heart disease or are at risk for it, consider your health as well as the size of your paycheck. Does your job give you the opportunity to develop new skills and to organize your work yourself? Do you have the authority to make decisions? Do your coworkers and boss make you laugh more often than they make you want to punch the wall?

"The general message, especially for people who are already at risk, is to take these work factors into account when assessing heart disease risk." Clays says. "Most cardiologists look at classic risk factors [such as cholesterol levels], but the larger environment has to be taken into account."

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