Scientists Find Links Between Work Stress and Heart Disease

A new study found that men who experience work-related stress or feel under-appreciated on the job have nearly double the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA) statistics, cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in the United States. Although many factors contribute to the development of heart disease, such as obesity, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol levels, psychosocial stress may also play a role.

However, limited research exists on whether job stress or effort-reward imbalances at work could increase heart disease risk. While stress typically happens because of high demands and heavy workloads, effort-reward imbalances occur when employees feel they put significant efforts into their work but don't receive any rewards in return, such as recognition or salary raises.

In research published on September 19 in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, a journal of the AHA, scientists assessed whether one or both work-related stressors could influence cardiovascular disease risks.

The investigators recruited 6,465 male and female white-collar workers in Canada with an average age of 45. The participants did not have heart disease at the study's onset.

The participants completed validated questionnaires to assess job strain and effort-reward imbalances experienced at work. The researcher retrieved cardiovascular disease event information from medico-administrative databases to determine how many participants developed cardiovascular disease during an 18-year follow-up period.

The data analysis showed that men exposed to either job strain or work-related effort-reward imbalances had a 49% increased risk of heart disease compared to male employees who didn't report these stressors.

What's more, males who experienced stress on the job and effort-reward imbalances had a 103% increased risk of heart disease.

The study authors also found that heart disease risks associated with experiencing one of these work-related stressors were similar to several other cardiovascular risk factors. Moreover, risks associated with having both job stressors were nearly identical to heart disease risks associated with obesity.

However, the researchers did not find associations between job stress and heart disease among female participants.

In an AHA news release, lead study author Mathilde Lavigne-Robichaud, R.D., M.S., doctoral candidate with the Population Health and Optimal Health Practices Research Unit at CHU de Quebec-University Laval Research Center in Quebec, Canada, said, "The study's inability to establish a direct link between psychosocial job stressors and coronary heart disease in women signals the need for further investigation into the complex interplay of various stressors and women's heart health."

Still, the authors note that physiological differences between men and women regarding heart disease risk may explain the inconclusive findings in female participants. Specifically, estrogen's protective effects may play a role.

"Considering the significant amount of time people spend at work, understanding the relationship between work stressors and cardiovascular health is crucial for public health and workforce well-being," Lavigne-Robichaud said. "Our study highlights the pressing need to proactively address stressful working conditions, to create healthier work environments that benefit employees and employers."

Although the research focused on people in Canada, the study authors say the results could be similar among white collar employees in the U.S. Still, it's unknown whether job stress-related heart disease risks would be similar among blue collar workers.

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