A man rubbing his eyes.Share on Pinterest
Risk of heart disease may be twice as high for men who work in high-stress jobs and feel unappreciated for their efforts, suggests new research. Westend61/Getty Images
  • A new study has found that high-demand, low-reward jobs can double the risk of heart disease in men.
  • Work stress can contribute to plaque build-up, constrict the arteries, and increase blood pressure.
  • Experts say mindfulness, exercise, and enjoying hobbies may help you better manage workplace stress.

New research suggests that men who are exposed to stressful working conditions and receive low rewards despite their best efforts have nearly twice the risk of heart disease compared to men who do not have these psychosocial stressors.

The impact of work stress on women’s heart health was inconclusive, according to the results published on September 19 in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.

The study of 6,500 white-collar workers in Canada, with an average age of 45, studied the combined effect of job strain and effort-reward imbalance at work.

The term “job strain” was used to describe work environments where employees face high job demands and ‘low control’ at work. The latter phrase describes employees having little say in decision-making and how they perform their tasks.

Meanwhile, according to the study, effort-reward imbalance occurs when employees invest high effort into their work, but little reward in return.

Over 18 years, researchers monitored the participants and measured job strain and effort-reward imbalance with results from questionnaires and retrieved heart disease information.

In a press release for the study, the authors conclude that “the impact of job strain and effort-reward imbalance combined was similar to the magnitude of the impact of obesity on the risk of coronary heart disease.”

So, why are high effort and low reward harmful to heart health? With work forming such a major part of our lives, how can we protect our hearts and manage work-related stress better?

Dr. Bradley Serwer, interventional cardiologist and chief medical officer at VitalSolution, speculated that the combination of baseline psychosocial stress and being in a situation in which a person feels they are not in control acts as a double hit.

“The physical effects of stress are well documented, and I suspect that the sense of lacking or losing control, in an already stressful situation exacerbates the physical response to stress,” he told Healthline.

Dr. Oliver Guttmann, a consultant cardiologist at The Wellington Hospital, part of HCA Healthcare U.K., said the lack of gratification in a low-reward job plays a role. When you feel unappreciated for your efforts, you aren’t experiencing the release of positive substances that are good for both physical and psychological well-being.

Guttman noted that stress can affect the cardiovascular system in many ways:

Stress increases plaques, leading to clots and blocked arteries

He said one potential mechanism is a person’s plaque rate, which can be increased by stress and accumulate in the arteries. Platelets can then become sticky, increasing the risk of clots, which can block arteries in the blood vessels around your heart.

Arteries may become restricted due to stress, triggering a heart attack

Guttman added that arteries can also constrict due to stress, restricting the amount of blood that can reach the heart, triggering chest pain and a heart attack.

Stress activates the fight-or-flight response

When we’re very stressed, we can also experience a fight-or-flight response. Guttmann says this increases the release of potentially harmful hormones into the bloodstream. One such hormone is epinephrin.

“Epinephrin prepares the body to deal with a stressful situation,” Guttmann explains. “It causes the heart rate and blood pressure to rise. Blood flow to the muscles is increased and your energy supplies are boosted.”

This can be helpful in the short term if we’re facing a challenge, but over the long term, Guttmann says this response can increase your blood pressure and the strain on your heart, resulting in an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Stress impacts eating and sleeping habits

Additionally, stress can have a knock-on effect on other heart health risk factors, according to Serwer.

He noted that stress can contribute to overeating and a decrease in sleep quality, both of which are bad for the heart and may make it more difficult to manage stress.

You might be wondering why job stress seems to be more harmful to men’s cardiovascular health than women’s, as the study seems to indicate.

The answer isn’t entirely clear cut, and Guttmann said it’s difficult to generalize regarding heart health and gender.

“Some people have suggested that women deal differently with stress, especially work-related stress, and maybe have more coping mechanisms by engaging in social activities, like talking to their friends, for example,” he said.

From a physical point of view, Guttmann said hormones give women some protection from coronary heart disease pre-menopause. However, their risk rises as they get older.

Of course, the results on women’s heart health were inconclusive, so it’s difficult to make assumptions.

The study authors say this warrants further investigation.

No matter your gender, one thing is clear: work stress isn’t just unpleasant; it’s detrimental to your heart. So, aside from quitting your job, what can you do to better manage it?

“While we may not be able to control the external stressors that we face while at work, we can control how we react and respond to these stressors,” Serwer pointed out.

Practice mindfulness

Serwer strongly recommended mindfulness and pausing at key moments throughout the day.

“Taking a few moments to focus on deep breathing, relaxation, and training our bodies to have less of a fight or flight response may counteract some of the negative physical effects of stress,” he explained.

Raise concerns with your employer

Guttmann said you shouldn’t forget that employers have a part to play and are responsible for creating a supportive work environment.

“It’s important that employees can voice their concerns and communicate with their employers; this could mean employees feel they have more control over their work,” he noted.

Try to find work-life balance

It may be what you do outside of work that has the biggest positive impact on your heart health.

Guttmann said that striking a work-life balance is key, and recommended:

A miserable, stressful job doesn’t just put your mental health at risk. This study makes it clear that when you’re facing unrealistic demands and aren’t being rewarded for your efforts it can have a serious knock-on effect on your heart as well.

Jobs take up a significant proportion of most people’s lives. Quitting isn’t always an option, so managing the stress that comes with our work is essential to leading a heart-healthy lifestyle.