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Is Your Job Wrecking Your Heart?

How job stress may affect your heart's health, and what you can do about it.

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.

But that doesn’t mean that the folks calling the shots around the office are out of the woods. High levels of pressure for leaders, such as corporate executives, can be stressful.

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.

 

Shift Work

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.

The cycle of wake and sleep is influenced by hormone levels. “When we rotate our [sleep schedule], our endocrine system gets confused and that has a negative impact on cardiovascular health,” 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.

Long Hours

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% more likely to have a heart attack, die of heart disease, or experience chest pain (angina) than people who didn't work any overtime.

That study doesn't prove that extra hours caused those heart problems, but the researchers did consider other cardiovascular risk factors (including smoking, cholesterol, diabetes, exercise, and BMI) and still concluded that the findings "suggest that overtime work adversely affects coronary health."

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."

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