Job Strain & Heart Disease

Researchers have analyzed 13 European studies covering 200,000 people, and concluded that “job strain” is linked to a 23% increased risk of heart attacks and deaths from coronary heart disease.

A recent article in the Lancet medical journal identifies job strain- from job insecurity, excessive workloads, inadequate deadlines, etc. –  is a type of stress.

(Note: the research did not specifically investigate the impact of workplace bullying and abuse – which is job strain on steroids – on workers. However, many other studies show a link between workplace bullying and potentially serious mental and physical health problems. )

At the beginning of each of the studies, people were asked a series of questions, such as whether they had excessive workloads or insufficient time to do their job , and they were asked about how much freedom they had to make decisions.  They were then sorted into people with job strain or not and followed for an average of seven and a half years.

One of the researchers, Prof Mika Kivimaki, from University College London, said: “Our findings indicate that job strain is associated with a small but consistent increased risk of experiencing a first coronary heart disease event, such as a heart attack.”

The researchers said eliminating job strain would prevent 3.4% of those cases.

Interestingly, job strain is associated with other more deadly health risk factors, such as smoking and obesity. Kivimaki told the BBC:  “We know smokers with job strain are more likely to smoke a bit more, active people with job strain are more likely to become inactive and there is a link with obesity.”

The research indicates that workers with more control over their jobs experience less job strain. For examples, medical doctors do not experience the same level of strain as low skilled workers.

According to Prof Kivimaki, “If one has high stress at work you can still reduce risk by keeping a healthy lifestyle.”

The researchers conclude that preventing job strain would decrease the incidence of heart disease, though they emphasize that eliminating smoking and  avoiding obesity would provide the greatest benefit.

Avoidance Increases Target’s Stress

Most targets try to avoid contact with an abusive supervisor but this tactic may backfire because it increases the target’s stress, according to research published in the American Psychological Association’s  International Journal of Stress Management.

A study conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Haifa in Israel found that direct communication with a bully boss results in more positive emotions for the target than avoidance. An example of direct communication is: “I tell the supervisor directly that he/she must not treat me like that.”

“It is understandable that employees wish to reduce their contact to a minimum.  However, this strategy further increases the employee’s stress because it is associated with a sense of weakness and perpetuates their fear of the supervisor,” said Prof. Dana Yagil, a member of the university’s Faculty of Social Welfare and Health Sciences who headed the study.

According to the study, abusive supervision is a major organizational stressor yet little is known about how employees cope with such stress. The study examined five types of strategies for coping with the stress factor of abusive treatment:

  • Directly communicating with the abusive boss to discuss the problems.
  • Using forms of ingratiation such as doing favors, using flattery and compliance.
  • Seeking support from others.
  • Avoiding contact with the supervisor.
  • Reframing or mentally restructuring the abuse in a way that decreases its threat.

The most widely-used strategy reported by the 300 employees who participated in the study was avoiding contact with the abusive supervisor, disengaging from the supervisor as much as possible, and also to seeking support from others.  The least used strategy was direct communication with the abusive supervisor — the strategy that was most strongly related to employees’ positive emotions.

The study shows that managers should be alert to signs of employee detachment – as it might indicate that their own behavior is being considered offensive by those employees.