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September 29, 2021 Heart Health

Stressed at Work? Why You (And Your Heart) Might Need a Break

woman stressed looking at laptop on desk at work

Another busy day at the office. Your workload continues to grow, deadlines are quickly approaching, and you feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders.

Before you know it, your chest is tightening, your heart and mind racing, and panic is starting to set in.

This work-related stress — which Dr. Dong Bo Yu, Non-Invasive Cardiologist at ThedaCare defines as “physical and psychosocial stresses that occur at or are attributable to the workplace” — is normal. It can even help you find the extra boost of energy you need to power through your to-do list.

But if the stress becomes chronic, you — and your heart — could be in serious trouble.

“While the COVID pandemic has been the main health focus this year nationwide, it is important to keep in mind that cardiovascular disease has been the No.1 killer in America for years and remained so in 2020,” said Dr. Yu. “Ischemic or coronary heart disease (CHD), most commonly known to the community as heart attacks, tops the list of heart-related illnesses. Heart failure and arrhythmia, such as atrial fibrillation, are also frequent contributors.”

Cardiovascular disease has been the No.1 killer in America for years.

Dong Bo Yu, MD, ThedaCare

Beyond the impact to your heart, work-related stress can bring on a host of other unfavorable symptoms, including:

  • Increased frequency of negative moods like anxiety, sadness, or irritability
  • Lack of patience
  • Feeling tired and sapped of energy
  • Increased aches and pains
  • Decreased immunity to the common cold
  • Forgetfulness

Depending on the physical demands of your job, work-related stress can look a little different for everyone. To get a better idea of where you fall on the spectrum, let’s dive deeper into a few of the common triggers, signs of burnout and what you can do to prevent stress from becoming unmanageable.

Stress Related to Physically Demanding Work

While the movement associated with physically demanding jobs can prove advantageous for one’s health, there are also several disadvantages that often accompany this type of work.

Many people with these jobs may benefit from the predictable amount of physical exertion on a routine basis and thus are shielded from deconditioning and obesity,” said Dr. Yu. “At the same time, these workers tend to be exposed to other occupational risks such as long work hours, excessive workload, and first-hand or second-hand smoking.”

According to the CDC, there is a higher prevalence of coronary heart disease and stroke in U.S. adults under 55 who work in service and blue collar jobs, particularly those in accommodation, food service, waste management, administrative support and security service roles.

Stress Related to Sedentary Work

For those working in an office setting, it’s no surprise that sitting in a chair for a significant part of the day could be detrimental to your health. In fact, research suggests workers who spend more than three hours a day being sedentary experience higher levels of perceived stress, which are feelings or thoughts one has about how much stress they are under.

“Desk or office-based jobs don’t require a lot of physical exertion but instead can impose significant levels of mental and psychological stress on an individual, something more difficult to quantify but likely also impacting cardiovascular health,” noted Dr. Yu.

Office-based jobs don’t require a lot of physical exertion, but instead can impose significant levels of mental and psychological stress on an individual.

Dong Bo Yu, MD, ThedaCare

Preventing Burnout

Despite the differences between sedentary and more physically demanding jobs, both have the potential to result in burnout – a condition that could be dangerous for your heart.

According to a recent study, burnout – referred to as “vital exhaustion” – may increase your risk of incident atrial fibrillation, an irregular and often rapid beating of the heart that can result in poor blood flow and blood clots.

“Chronic stress and burnout are detrimental to the general state of health, of which cardiovascular health is a key part,” explained Dr. Yu. “Warning signs include chronic fatigue, lack of energy, excessive sleepiness, decreased physical stamina, lack of motivation and depression. And if you experience any new or progressive symptoms, such as exertional chest pain and dyspnea, seek urgent medical attention. These could be red flags for underlying heart disease.”

Chronic stress and burnout are detrimental to the general state of health, of which cardiovascular health is a key part.

Dong Bo Yu, MD, ThedaCare

Tips for Managing Stress

Fortunately, there are ways to relieve chronic stress and protect your heart in the process.

If you find yourself struggling at work and in life due to excessive job-related stress for no fault of your own, ask yourself if the work needs to be modified,” said Dr. Yu. “Maybe there are opportunities to reduce your workload, adjust your job duties or change shifts, all of which could help to preserve your long-term health. If you’ve exhausted those options, it may be time to consider a new job altogether.”

If it isn’t possible to make changes to the work itself, there are a few additional things you can try:

  • Journal: Studies suggest writing down your thoughts can be good for both physical and mental health.
  • Set Boundaries: While it can be tempting to extend your work day to finish up a few more things on your to-do list, science suggests calling it a day instead.
  • Exercise: Countless research has shown exercise can improve your mental and physical well-being. Even 30 minutes of walking can help.
  • Socialize: Research shows building a good social support system can help you better tolerate stress.
  • Unwind: Find something you love to do, and start incorporating it into your life on a regular basis. It can help take your mind off work and give you something to look forward to on the challenging days.

No matter what tactics you explore to reduce stress, remember that small amounts of stress are inevitable. As Dr. Yu explained, the most important thing is to keep a balance.

“Moderation was considered a virtue even in the days of the ancient Greeks, and it remains true today,” he said. “While moderate amounts of stress at work may be conducive to motivation and job performance, excessive or extreme stress almost always predispose us to harm.”

Are you at increased risk for cardiovascular disease? Take our free heart risk assessment to find out.

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