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

Last updated: September 29, 2021

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 are racing, and panic is starting to set in.

Work-related stress is not uncommon. Dr. Jagdeep Sabharwal, a Cardiologist with ThedaCare Cardiovascular Care, defines this type of unease as “physical and psychosocial stresses that occur at or are attributable to the workplace.”

Stress isn’t all bad. It can help you find the extra boost of energy you need to power through your to-do list. But if the issue becomes chronic, you — and your heart — could wind up in trouble.

“Cardiovascular disease is the No.1 killer in America,” Dr. Sabharwal says. “Ischemic or coronary heart disease, 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.”

Beyond the impact to your heart, work-related stress can bring on many other issues, including:

  • More frequent 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 vary. 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.

Physically Demanding Work

While the movement associated with physically demanding jobs can prove advantageous to your health, several disadvantages can also 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,” Dr. Sabharwal says. “At the same time, these workers tend to be exposed to other occupational risks such as long work hours and excessive workload.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is a higher prevalence of coronary heart disease and stroke in U.S. adults under 55 who work in service-type jobs. Those include people who work in accommodation, foodservice, waste management, administrative support, and security service roles.

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 that sitting for more than three hours per day can lead to problems. Workers who sit for several consecutive hours may experience higher levels of perceived stress. This involves feelings or thoughts about how much stress one is 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,” Dr. Sabharwal says. “This is something more difficult to quantify, but it likely impacts cardiovascular health.”

While manageable amounts of stress at work may be conducive to motivation and job performance, excessive or extreme stress almost always predisposes us to harm.

Dr. Jagdeep Sabharwal, ThedaCare Cardiovascular Care

Preventing Burnout

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

According to one study, burnout — referred to as “vital exhaustion” — may increase your risk of incident atrial fibrillation. This is 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,” Dr. Sabharwal says.

Warning signs include chronic fatigue, lack of energy, excessive sleepiness, decreased physical stamina, lack of motivation, and depression. People who experience any new or progressive symptoms, such as exertional chest pain, should seek urgent medical attention. These could be red flags for underlying heart disease.

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 job-related stress, ask yourself if your work needs to be modified,” Dr. Sabharwal says. “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, you can try other measures:

  • 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 items on your to-do list, science suggests calling it a day instead.
  • Exercise: Countless studies have found 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 strategies you explore to reduce stress, remember that small amounts of stress are inevitable. The most important thing is to maintain balance, Dr. Sabharwal says.

“Moderation is key,” he says. “While manageable amounts of stress at work may be conducive to motivation and job performance, excessive or extreme stress almost always predisposes us to harm.”

Tags: cardiovascular health heart health stress management workplace stress

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