14 Feb 2012

Is Your Job Breaking Your Heart?

February is America Heart Month.  Posts this month will focus on women and heart disease.

We’re all aware of the pressure women are under.  Whether we’re in health care or running our own businesses, the story is the same.  Do more with less and do it faster.  As it turns out, all that stress may be breaking our hearts!

A recent study suggests that women who are in high-stress jobs are 40% more likely to develop heart disease.  Forty percent!

The research involved 17,415 participants in the Women’s Health Study (most of whom work in health care), a long-running trial that’s looking at heart disease and cancer prevention. The women were healthy, 57 years old on average, and had worked full or part-time when the study began in 1999.

The women completed surveys about their jobs, rating statements like “My job requires working very fast,” and “I am free from competing demands that others make.”

Researchers put them in four groups based on stress they reported and looked 10 years later to see how they were doing. Women with demanding jobs and little control over how to do them were nearly twice as likely to have suffered a heart attack as women with less demanding jobs and more control. The high-stress group had a 40 percent greater overall risk of heart problems, including heart attacks, strokes or blocked arteries requiring bypass surgery or an angioplasty procedure.

The study also showed that women who were afraid of losing their jobs were more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as high blood pressure, increased cholesterol, and excess body weight. However, job insecurity did not translate into an increased chance of developing cardiovascular disease.

So what’s a woman in a high-stress job to do?  Recognizing stress and managing it is key to controlling it… because you may not be able to change it. Some steps to try include:

  • Get moving.  Increased physical activity lets you blow off some steam AND helps control weight, blood pressure and cholesterol (all of which contribute to heart disease).
  • Carve time out for yourself each day to relax, even if it’s only 10 or 15 minutes.  Download meditation or guided imagery MP3s and take them to work with you. Spend 10 minutes of your lunch break listening one of your choices.
  • Breathe.  Pay attention to the number of times a day you catch yourself forgetting to breathe.  It’s amazing to me how often I find myself holding my breath.  Breathe in for 4 counts and out for 4.  Ahhh….
  • Control how much work comes home with you. Set limits on how much time you spend working during non-work hours.
  • Create a strong social network.  Seek out confidantes who will listen to you and help you work through any job issues.
  • Make sure your doctor knows the level of job-related stress you experience. (And physicians…make sure you ask about stress levels at visits)
  • Invest in yourself.  You may be in a situation where hiring a coach makes sense.  A coach can help you clarify what it is you’re wanting in your work situation and help you create a plan to get where you want to go.
  • Let your employer help. Access your employer’s Employee Assistance Program or wellness program.  Either will have great stress reduction resources.

The bottom line is this: you can’t see the damage stress causes in your body, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.  You know when you’re stressed out and it’s up to you to manage it.  There are simple choices we can all make to keep ourselves healthy.  Create an awareness of what your body is telling you…then listen to it.

There’s no do-over on this kind of a broken heart.


Dr. Anna Garrett

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