Unstable Workplace Might Increase Employee Risk for Heart Attack

When employees feel ambiguous about their role in the organization and there is a lack of clear-cut communication, they might be at higher risk for heart attacks over time, a new study suggests.

The 18-year study from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health in Helsinki, Finland, examined the possible link between job control factors and heart attacks — acute myocardial infarction — among 7,663 private sector employees.

“The risk of MI was about 1.8 times higher in a disorganized setting than in an organized setting,” said Ari Vaananen, lead study author. “Clear organization of work tasks matters.”

Although it has long been known that risk factors such as smoking and a lack of exercise can lead to poor cardiac health, the study finds that characteristics of a job, such as an employee’s lack of control, job awareness, unexpected changes, job strain and stress, also could lead to poor cardiac health.

Adults spend about one-third of their waking hours at work for more than 30 years of their lives. Unfortunately, many people work in environments where unpredictable job components are the norm.

“We looked at the measure of predictability, how an employee views the clarity of work goals and work roles, their ability to foresee work problems and how significant work disturbances interrupt the work process and outcome.” Vaananen said.

Researchers sent questionnaires to 12,173 employees in the multinational forest industry who had worked for their company for at least 24 months and who initially were free of heart disease. In all, 9,292 employees, primarily blue-collar workers, responded.

The researchers examined demographics, psychological distress, medical conditions and lifestyle risk factors. During the 17-year follow-up period, 56 employees died of acute myocardial infarction and 316 had nonfatal events.

Improving Predictability

“Not knowing what is expected in the workplace is stressful,” said Joan Gillman, director of special industry programs at the School of Business at University of Wisconsin-Madison. “In my adult classes, when asked, most supervisors don’t really know what is expected or what they are being judged on.”

Educating the work force is important to improved predictability, Gillman added. “The more that employees know what is expected of them and are given the proper training, the less stressful it is for them.”

To change their predisposition to acute myocardial infarctions, Vaananen explained that employees could acquire new skills through education or learn how the organization’s entire system works.

“Good knowledge of the organization and of their own clear roles at work may decrease negative emotions and chronic stress, and lower their risk for acute myocardial infarction,” she said.

“Employees who follow these recommendations will improve their subjective health and lower their risks of physical impairment,” added John Mirowsky, a professor with the Sociology Department and Population Research Center at the University of Texas. “It is a winning formula all around.”

The study appears in the December issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

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