How job stress may affect your heart’s health, and what you can do about it…
Experts and under-the-gun workers everywhere have long known that high stress levels play a big, and often negative, role in the state of our health. Among other things, research has shown that high-stress jobs put a strain on our hearts. Extreme job stress has even been shown to bring on heart attacks and sudden cardiac death.
But more than the job itself, experts say, are the conditions that lead someone to feel stressed about his or her work. One person’s pressure cooker can be another’s dream job. “A lot of it comes down to individual reactions to stress,” says Tara Narula, MD, a cardiologist. “You can put two people in the same job, which you might say from the outside looks demanding, but it’s how you psychologically and physiologically react to that stress that would determine what your cardiovascular reaction is.” The bottom line, Narula says, is that there is undoubtedly a mind-body connection as it relates to health.
The Job Stress-Heart Connection
Job stress impacts the body in direct and indirect ways, Narula says. Directly, stress may damage the blood vessels, specifically the heart’s coronary arteries. We count on our coronary arteries to expand in order to allow more nutrients and oxygen to make their way to the heart muscle at times of physical stress. With psychological stress, however, these arteries can paradoxically constrict, reducing nutrient supply just when it’s needed most. Narula says the hormonal changes associated with stress make any plaque that might be present more vulnerable to rupturing. When this happens, a heart attack can occur. Indirectly, uncontrolled job stress may put pressure on the heart by raising blood pressure, heart rate, and even cholesterol levels. And platelets, which cause blood to clot, can become more likely to clump, making heart attacks more likely. Finally, job stress has a tendency to reduce one’s attentiveness to healthful lifestyle choices, increasing likelihood of risky behaviors like smoking or drinking, which can exacerbate known risk factors for cardiac disease.
Consider Your Co-workers
One of the chief contributors to job stress is your direct superior and whether or not you get along with him or her, says Joseph A. Diamond, MD, director of nuclear cardiology. “In job situations, it’s not just the type of job but also who you’re working with,” Diamond says. “And the interaction with your co-workers is an extremely important factor in whether a job is stressful,” he says.
High Demand, Low Control
Although they don’t point to a specific job type, Narula and Diamond say that highly demanding jobs that leave workers with very little decision-making power in their daily tasks or little control over how those tasks are performed, place a tremendous amount of stress on workers.
Stop and Go
Among the most stressful types of jobs are those that require workers to be inactive for long periods of time followed by bursts of sudden, high-pressured activity, Diamond says. Air traffic controllers, police officers, or firefighters are good examples of this type of job. “From a physiological point of view, it’s the sudden production of stress hormones, including norepinephrine and epinephrine [also known as adrenaline],” Diamond says. When released in the body, stress hormones help to create what’s known as the fight-or-flight response, increasing heart rate and constricting blood vessels, among other reactions. Stress also leads to the production of cortisol, a hormone that increases blood sugar levels and suppresses the immune system.
People who work hours that frequently change from day shift to night shift can suffer from high levels of stress that come mostly from a lack of sleep and the inability to form a steady pattern of sleep. “People who are chronically deprived of sleep are at higher risk for health problems, including cardiac disease,” Diamond says. Health care workers, such as doctors and nurses, as well as air traffic controllers, police, and firefighters are some of the professions at risk.
A similar effect may occur for people who travel a lot for work. Narula says it’s not uncommon for people to return from a trip and soon after have a heart attack. “The stress of traveling may contribute on some level, as does not taking medications properly [while away] and not sleeping,” she says.
Working overtime may also damage the heart muscle. A 2010 study published in the ‘European Heart Journal’ tracked more than 6,000 British white-collar workers for 11 years. During that time, people who typically worked 3-4 hours of overtime per day were 56 per cent more likely to have a heart attack, die of heart disease, or experience chest pain (angina) than people who didn’t work any overtime. But don’t run screaming from the office just yet. “If you love your job and enjoy what you’re doing then putting in long hours is not going to have so much impact,” Diamond says. “Where there may be an impact is if you don’t enjoy your job.”
Among all the factors that contribute to job stress, one of the most important is how you react to it. One of the most important things to be concerned about, Diamond and Narula say, is if you’re a person for whom anger, hostility, and cynicism come easily. “People who get angry or hostile are at greater risk of a cardiovascular event. People who let things roll off their back do better,” Narula says. A personality overhaul may not be a realistic goal. But no matter what your tendencies or your job there are steps you can take to lower your stress levels and reduce your risk for cardiovascular trouble. Stress reduction techniques anything from cardiovascular exercise, such as running, biking, or brisk walking, to a stretching activity like yoga or Tai Chi, massage, or learning how to meditate are all great ways to counter stress on the job.
For best results, Diamond suggests making relaxation time a daily practice. “It’s like brushing your teeth to prevent a cavity from developing,” he says. Although not always possible to change, it’s worth taking a fresh look at the things that bother you at work to see if some of your major stressors can be removed. For example, can you talk with your boss about moving to a new work space if your coworker on the other side of the wall is loud and constantly interrupting you? And, if you have medical conditions that put you at higher risk for heart disease -high blood pressure, being overweight, and certainly if you smoke or drink a lot of alcohol – talk with your doctor about how to address these issues, Narula says.
Your heart will thank you.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Klodas, MD, FACC