April 14, 2003 -- During a stressful day, support from co-workers can keep your blood pressure from boiling. That's good news for the millions out there suffering from work stress.
A new study, the first of its kind, shows that support from colleagues literally keeps blood pressure down. It's an important issue, since work stress has been linked with increased rates of high blood pressure and heart disease.
It all points to the importance of developing good relationships with co-workers, says senior researcher Elizabeth Brondolo, PhD, a psychology professor at St. John's University in Stony Brook, N.Y.
"How people care for each other in the workplace has very clear and measurable effects on their blood pressure," she tells WebMD. Her study appears in the latest issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.
Social support from family and friends has long been recognized as key to easing daily stresses and protecting us against heart disease and high blood pressure. However, psychologists have not understood exactly how work stress might factor into the equation.
Is it because social isolation leads to high blood pressure in everyday life, causing blood pressure to dangerously spike in times of stress? Or does support from friends and family act as a buffer during high-stress times? How does the support system factor into the effects of work stress?
In their study, Brondolo and colleagues focused on the work stress of New York City's traffic enforcement agents -- the people who issue parking violations and traffic tickets. "Motorists often insult, threaten, or curse at the agents," writes Brondolo.
The study involved 70 male and female traffic agents. Each agent wore a small monitor that recorded heart rate and blood pressure throughout the day. Each also kept a journal on his or her workday whereabouts and activities.
At the day's end, each agent completed a questionnaire measuring the emotional support they got from co-workers, immediate supervisors, and unit supervisors.
"The more people felt supported by their co-workers, the smaller the increases in their blood pressure in the work environment," she tells WebMD. In fact, they had lower blood pressure during the most stressful times as well as throughout the workday.
Men seemed to derive more support from co-workers. For women, support from an immediate supervisor provided the most relief from work stress.
"Most people turn to women for emotional support, so women may be a little overburdened," Brondolo explains. "The supervisor may be somebody she can rely on, but she won't have to take emotional care of the supervisor. After all, when you talk to a friend about your problems, you expect the friend to talk to you about theirs. You honor that reciprocity. Disclosing carries a burden. But it would be inappropriate for a supervisor to talk to you about his or her emotional problems."
If a co-worker seems stressed out, reach out to them, advises Nadine Kaslow, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University and chief psychologist at the Grady Health System, both in Atlanta.
"When people are stressed at work, they sometimes retreat, they shut down," she tells WebMD. Someone else in the trenches can indeed offer the best support, Kaslow says. "Who doesn't have work stress? It it's not interpersonal difficulties, it's the demands of the job, sometimes the office culture causes stress. This study shows us to that our co-workers can make a measurable, physical difference in the effect of work stress."