Think smoking’s bad for your health? It’s got nothing on your job.
According to new research, job burnout and stress—dealing with emotional, mental and physical exhaustion from your work—makes you a prime candidate for heart problems.
Those who were identified as being in the top 20 percent of the burnout scale were found to have a (yikes!) 79 percent increased risk of coronary heart disease—an accumulation of plaque in arteries that can lead to angina or heart attacks—according to researchers from Tel Aviv University.
Researchers studied nearly 9,000 apparently healthy employed men and women, aged 19 to 67 years. They were asked questions about their ability to focus, think clearly and be sensitive to their co-workers’ and customers’ needs, as well as their emotional investment in their work.
The results were even alarming to researchers, who said they were more extreme than they had expected. It makes burnout a stronger predictor of CHD than many other classical risk factors, including smoking, blood lipid levels and physical activity.
But just how alarming are these results, really?
Employees have known for years already how much work stress affects them—from working hard for peanuts, having a bad or difficult boss, long commutes, long hours and so on. The same goes for doctors as they have been treating heart attacks most often caused by stress and writing prescription after prescription. (Other research finds that women with high-stress jobs suffer a whopping 88 percent greater risk of heart attack.) Now that researchers know this, I suppose employers are the last ones to know it—or at least offer help or suggestions.
(And no, hearing how lucky we are to have a job in this economy isn’t the most helpful suggestion.)
Work stress and job burnout may perhaps be our country’s biggest common denominator. Americans work longer hours, take fewer vacation days and retire later than employees in other industrialized countries around the globe.
Burnout, by the way, is also associated with other health woes including obesity, insomnia and anxiety. Researchers also warned that job burnout can create a “downward health spiral and develop into a chronic condition.”
So what’s there to do? Researchers say we need to help avoid long-term damage—and everyone needs to do their part. Health care providers who know their patients are experiencing burnout, for one, should closely monitor for signs of coronary heart disease as well.
“Employers need to prioritize prevention by promoting healthy and supportive work environments and keeping watch for early warning signs of the condition. Simple diagnostic questionnaires that identify burnout are already available online,” Tel Aviv University researchers wrote. “Workers can contribute to prevention by making healthy lifestyle choices, such as exercising more regularly; getting seven to eight hours sleep per night; and seeking psychological therapy if required.”
There’s also the idea, of course, of working somewhere else. But with these statistics, it seems like a bad work culture might just follow you. But I wouldn’t bet your health on it.