Women have enough to worry about, but a recent federally funded study found that female workers with stressful jobs were more inclined than women with less job strain to suffer heart attacks, strokes, or to have clogged arteries. As if that weren’t enough, the study also uncovered that women who worried about losing a job were at an increased risk for a heart attack, too.
With the way our nation’s economy and job situation has been going lately, this may be some disturbing news for women, who make up about half of our nation’s workforce. In the past, studies focused on how men fared under high-stress jobs—and found that they, too, were at a higher risk for heart attacks. This is the longest major study to have focused on job stress in women, however.
The 17, 415 study participants were healthy women, 57 years of age on average, who worked part-time or full-time when the study began in 1999. The study was led by Dr. Michelle Albert, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. The results were reported at a recent American Heart Association conference in Chicago.
Most of the study participants were health professionals, “anything from being a nurse’s aide all the way to a Ph.D.,” said Albert. They were surveyed and made observations about their jobs, rating statements like “My job requires working very fast,” and “I am free from competing demands that others make.”
Based on the responses the participants reported on stress levels, the researchers placed the women into four groups—and then followed up ten years later to see how the women fared.
Here’s what the researchers found: Women who had demanding jobs, but little control over how to conduct their jobs, were twice as likely to suffer a heart attack than the women with less demanding jobs, but more control over them. Additionally, the high-stress group had a 40% greater overall risk of heart problems such as heart attacks, strokes, or clogged arteries.
What about those women who were worried about losing their jobs? They had higher blood pressure, cholesterol and body weight.
Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of the Women and Heart Disease program at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York (who had no part of the study), makes this observation, “The reality is these women don’t usually have the same kinds of jobs as men and often lack control over their work. It’s not just going to work; it’s what happens when you get there.”
What happens when they get there is stress, which can harm health by releasing “fight or flight” stress hormones that increase blood pressure and inflammation levels—at least.
One of the study’s participants openly shares her experience. She is on her second medical leave of absence in two years. She manages 16 operators in a busy corporate teleconference center, so you can imagine the stress levels—especially when there’s a “crush of calls” (along with technical difficulties) like those she encountered during a particularly busy season.
It took its toll. She started having chest pains and collapsed while out walking one night, but tests found no signs of heart disease. She suggests that, before stress gets the best of you, to exercise, limit bringing work home, get some “me” time, and to get a life outside of work!
Eating a heart-healthy diet couldn’t hurt, either, but the bottom line is to manage stress—especially work stress—before it manages you.