New Data: Having This Kind of Job May Double Heart Disease Risk

Updated: Oct. 26, 2023

The American Heart Association shares new research that demonstrates how much your health might depend on you moving on from a frustrating workplace.

Too many Americans know what it’s like to have a job with towering demands—an unrelenting workload, crash deadlines, and a multitude of meetings—yet your control in these tasks and decisions is minimal.

A recent heart study concludes that this isn’t just aggravating, but that in fact there’s a pressing link between this kind of workplace stress and heart health. The research, published September 2023 in the American Heart Association’s (AHA) journal, Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, reveals a significant and worrisome connection: For individuals facing high job strain and low reward, the risk of heart disease appears to double.

The job stress and heart disease connection

Lead study author Mathilde Lavigne-Robichaud, RD, MS, a doctoral candidate at CHU de Quebec-University Laval Research Center, suggests that this scenario where expectations are high but autonomy is low, leaving employees grappling with stress and frustration, constitutes “job strain.”

Lavigne-Robichaud also spoke to an “effort-reward imbalance,” which occurs when you pour immense effort into your work, consistently going above and beyond, yet the rewards—salary, acknowledgment, or job security—fall short of your investment. Effort-reward imbalance is a disparity between the hard work you put in and the recognition you receive in return, creating a breeding ground for stress and dissatisfaction.

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The quantifiable impact and the gender gap

The research, which spanned 18 years and involved close to 6,500 white-collar workers from Canada, reveals some striking findings. Men who experienced job strain or an imbalance between their efforts and their rewards faced a 49% surge in their risk for heart disease. Alarmingly, when these stressors were experienced simultaneously, the risk skyrocketed—doubling in measure.

The study was unable to establish quite as strong a link between these particular job-related stressors and heart disease in women. That’s not to say women don’t suffer from unjust work stress, but the study found that around half as many women than men experienced heart disease. It may be that women cope differently, but the researchers acknowledge that this inconsistency paves the way for further research to dive deeper into understanding how work stress might influence heart health among different genders.

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Addressing the stress epidemic in the workplace

Eduardo J. Sanchez, MD, MPH, FAHA, FAAFP, chief medical officer for prevention at the AHA, explains: “The U.S. workforce is among the most stressed in the world, and these workplace stressors can be as harmful to health as obesity and secondhand smoke.”

The study emphasizes prioritizing workplace wellness and implementing interventions that mitigate stressors. If you’re not in an optimal position to change your job, some techniques to try might be:

  • taking a short walk to decompress, either during or after the workday
  • engaging in a gym routine (nothing takes your mind off work and makes you feel invincible quite like a challenging cardio class does!)
  • allowing yourself time to eat lunch away from your desk
  • surrounding yourself with a loving support system in your off-hours
  • prioritizing healthy sleep, which is one of the most effective ways to heal and restore your body’s cells
  • use up your paid time off—an August 2023 report from the Pew Research Center stated: “Some 46% of U.S. workers who receive paid time off from their employer—whether for vacation, doctor’s appointments or minor illnesses—take less time than they are offered.”
  • trying a short calming meditation or box-breathing

Lavigne-Robichaud suggests that the impetus is also on employers to implement strategies like teaching positive team communication, promoting work-life balance, and recognizing how important it is for employees to feel empowered to deliver their best work.

Given that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tackling workplace stress is more than a job satisfaction issue—it’s a vital step in safeguarding health.

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