How Job Stress Affects Your Heart

Medically Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on April 27, 2015
4 min read

You’ve got a month’s worth of reports to finish, and only a week to get them done. Your co-worker is on vacation, and you picked up their shift. Just an ordinary day on the job? Maybe. But if it regularly frustrates you, it’s time to find a good way to handle it.


“Workplace stress is bad for your heart,” says Michael Miller, MD, director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and author of Heal Your Heart.


Everyone is different. You might thrive on a job that someone else finds incredibly stressful. The problem often is a job that is “high-demand, low-control,” Miller says. “That’s when your boss gives you too much to do and no control over how to do it."

Does this sound familiar?

  1. Your heart races, your palms sweat, and your blood pressure goes way up.
  2. You feel tired and cranky, and you snap at your family and friends.
  3. You have trouble sleeping and concentrating.
  4. You catch colds more often and have trouble shaking them off.
  5. You “self-medicate” with a pint of ice cream or an extra glass of wine.

If you’ve got a job like this, your chance of having a heart attack goes up.

Sometimes, the problem is short-term. Imagine you’re an accountant in the middle of tax season or a cashier at the mall during the holidays. Your body pumps out stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to help you spring into action to get the job done. And even though it’s rough, you know that soon, life will get back to normal.


But if there’s no end in sight, your body stays flooded with those chemicals and starts converting them into cholesterol. That can lead to heart disease.


You can take steps to stop that in its tracks. Use these proven strategies.

First, check out these questions from Redford Williams, MD, head of behavioral medicine at Duke University School of Medicine.  If you answer "yes" to one or more, you’ve got workplace stress and it’s time to speak up or chill out.

  1. Does the stress cause problems with how well I do my job? Is it hard to focus?
  2. Do my co-workers feel the same way?
  3. Does the stress trouble my relationships at home? Do I snap at family members, avoid friends, and argue over little things?
  4. Does it affect my physical health? Do I get sick more often, feel tired all the time, eat or sleep poorly, or drink more than usual?
  5. Do my friends and family tell me I’m not my usual self?

“What happens next is up to you,” Williams says. “In the end, the only person you can depend on to manage your stress is you.”

Sometimes, your anger and anxiety are signs that you need to speak up, Williams says. Ask yourself if it’s worth the effort to try to change things at work.


If it is, be assertive. Calmly explain the problem to your boss and suggest a solution. For instance, you might ask for more time to complete your work, for setting priorities for your tasks, or even for more training to move into a different role.


When employees use communication skills like these, Williams says, they take control of the problem. Their levels of anxiety and depression, and their blood pressure, all go down.


You might also want to talk to the human resources department.  Chances are, your company offers wellness programs to help you handle stress. “It’s important to tap into available resources,” says David Ballard, PsyD, a psychologist who specializes in promoting employee well-being. “But only about a third of employees use them.”

On the other hand, you might decide that your energy is better spent on relaxation. “The key is to find behaviors that get you back to your pre-stress levels,” Ballard says.  Try these tips:

  1. Have fun in your off-hours. Find an activity you love and throw yourself into it. Maybe it’s volunteering or joining a theatre group or singing in a choir. The only rule? Enjoy yourself and don’t think about work.
  2. Relax. Find ways to unwind. Try a hobby, sports, reading, meditation or prayer, or anything else you enjoy that enhances your life.
  3. Move. Get up from your desk a couple of times an hour and stretch. Or take a walk on your lunch break. Spending time in green spaces like parks can curb feelings of depression and anxiety.
  4. Connect with others. “When you’re stressed out, you tend to disconnect from your relationships. And that’s exactly the opposite of what you need,” Ballard says. Isolating yourself can raise your risk for heart disease.  Your friends can help you get through the rocky times, so keep them close.