Workplace Stress Can Lead to Heart Disease, Study Says

Workplace stress is not for the faint-hearted: New research shows that on-the-job stress can increase the risk of heart disease by disturbing the body’s internal systems and causing some employees to adopt unhealthy lifestyles.

Researchers from the University College London (UCL), UK followed more than 10,000 British government workers since 1985 and found that workers were 68 percent more likely to die of heart disease, suffer a nonfatal heart attack or develop angina (chest pain) if they had long-term job stress.

This research, published in the January issue of the European Heart Journal, is the first large-scale study to look at the cardiovascular mechanisms of on-the-job stress and provides the strongest evidence yet of how it can lead to coronary heart disease. According to the study, heart disease can develop either as a direct result of stress – when stress pathways controlled by the interaction between the nervous system, the endocrine glands and their hormones are activated – or indirectly when stress drives employees to unhealthy lifestyles.

Dr Tarani Chandola, a senior lecturer in UCL’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health and the first author of study, added that unhealthy diets and inactive lifestyles exacerbated the problem.

Researchers measured stress among the civil servants by asking questions about their job demands, such as how much control they had at work, how often they took breaks and how pressed for time they were during the day. They noticed that employees with higher levels of stress were more likely to have lowered heart variability and demonstrate higher than normal morning levels of cortisol – a stress hormone that provides a burst of energy for a fight-or-flight response.

These results were independent of the workers’ health behaviors, Dr. Chandola said.

The researchers also found that workplace stress was associated with poor health behaviors, such as unhealthy eating habits, sedentary lifestyles and a lower consumption of fruits and vegetables, which could indirectly lead to heart disease. Chandal noted that around 32 percent “of the effect of work stress on [heart disease] could be explained by its effect on health behaviors and the metabolic syndrome,” a cluster of health problems that makes heart disease and diabetes more likely.

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