Reducing stress and risk of heart attack - Business Works
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Reducing stress and risk of heart attack

by Eve Watkins It's a fact: a stressful job can increase the risk of suffering from a heart attack. Leading medical journal, the Lancet, has just released the findings of a new study, which reveal the worrying statistics. Almost 200,000 people were studied from seven European countries, to conclude that 3.4% of heart attacks are caused primarily by job strain.

People that were found to be most at risk were those with high amounts of job strain and where they had little or no control over the decision making for the companies they work for. The risk of a heart attack for these people was 23% higher than other groups.

High demand, little control

Job strain, according to the Lancet, is defined as "high demand on the individual and little freedom to make his or her own decisions about how and when to do the work". Salary was found to have little effect on this. Although it was more common among those on lower incomes, it was also applicable to those on higher wages. Professor Andrew Steptoe, spokesperson for the department of epidemiology and public health at University College London, said, "It is the coupling [of high demand and low control] that is problematic. It is more common in low income jobs where people are doing the same thing again and again, such as assembly line work, but it is across the whole social spectrum."

Professor Steptoe claims that this recent research is the most accurate study of its kind done to date, as the results were a meta-analysis of both previous published and unpublished studies. Also, the participants were studied for approximately 7.5 years. During this time, there were 2356 heart attacks or other significant forms of heart disease that took place between the participants. The 23% increased risk of heart attack for those experiencing job strain was regardless of age, gender, social status and race. Prior to the research, none of the 200,000 people had suffered a heart attack.

Professor Mika Kivimäki, who led the research, said, "Our findings indicate that job strain is associated with a small, but consistent, increased risk of experiencing a first CHD [coronary heart disease] event such as a heart attack."

Variety of people studied

Those studied included workers from a large variety of professions, including civil servants, factory workers, airline pilots and office workers. Among other factors that contributed towards job strain were having an unreasonable boss, having too large a workload, extreme external pressure and long working hours.

The research also concludes that smoking and physical inactivity remain the largest contributing factors to suffering from heart attacks – a lot more than job strain. Professor Steptoe emphasises that, while there are many steps that can be taken to reduce job strain, people should address their own health first by cutting out smoking and participating in regular exercise.

Wakeup call

The study is a wakeup call to those currently suffering from ongoing stress at work. At a time when unemployment is at all time high and competition for jobs is more than ever, even the thought of looking for a new job and gaining new offers of work can be difficult. Many people feel particularly tied to their jobs for fear of becoming unemployed in a difficult market. However, when health starts to suffer, it is a sign that it may be time to think about looking for a new job. People may be surprised when they find their skills can be put to good use elsewhere – under less pressured working conditions. As the first port of call, those that are concerned about their health due to stress at work should seek advice from their doctors, as well as discussing the issue with their human resources department to see if these issues can be addressed.

Kivimaki said that risk factors such as job strain, smoking and inactivity go hand in hand for many people. "Smokers, when they’re under stress, tend to smoke a bit more than people who are not under stress," he said. "Those who are physically active, if they have job stress, they seem to be more likely to become inactive. So these seem to be related."

Make other changes

Kivimaki went on to advise those really unable to avoid a stressful job to make changes to other areas of their lives to help prevent heart problems. "If one has high stress at work, it’s even more important to keep healthy otherwise," he said. He also advised a healthy diet, coupled with regular exercise and avoiding heavy, regular drinking.

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