Work Stress Associated with Risk of Heart Attack

Over the years, several scientific studies have demonstrated the relationship between work stress and heart attacks. Here's what we know.
Work Stress Associated with Risk of Heart Attack
Leonardo Biolatto

Written and verified by the doctor Leonardo Biolatto.

Last update: 27 May, 2022

Work-related stress is associated with the risk of heart attack throughout the world. No country or society has escaped this link, which has increased over time due to new work situations and the vortex of today’s work environment.

On the other hand, mortality associated with cardiovascular diseases hasn’t declined, as is the case with various health issues. In fact, in recent times, researchers have detected an increase of up to 15% in cardiovascular mortality.

At the same time, disability associated with cardiovascular events increased more than tenfold, a common implication of suffering a heart attack or stroke.

In particular, those who work in stressful environments are exposed to an added risk factor. Some studies report up to 48% higher risk among these people than in the rest of the population.

And the possibility of heart attack increases exponentially when those under stress have other conditions such as smoking or obesity. In the long term, occupational stress is also associated with the risk of a heart attack. A stressed worker increases the probability of a coronary event by 15% over 10 years compared to another worker without stress.

What is work stress?

To find the link between work stress and the risk of heart attack is, we first have to define what we mean by a stressful work situation. We know that it doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone, but certain guidelines allow us to unify the criteria.

Work stress is usually understood as the combination of high psychological demand on the worker and a low level of control over the situation in which the person is working. In other words, the worker suffers internally from the tasks they have to perform and, nevertheless, doesn’t find a mechanism to adapt.

In general, stressed workers are those who feel that many results are demanded of them in a short time, lack free spaces for personal fulfillment, perform monotonous tasks and perceive themselves as lacking decision on their work.

If the person adapts to these situations, they won’t suffer from stress. However, if they aren’t able to develop efficient defense mechanisms, or aren’t able to modify their environment, then they break down.

This is where the symptoms of work stress appear:

  • Depression
  • Tachycardia
  • States of anxiety or anguish
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Lack of concentration
  • Muscle contraction
A woman with work stress.
Multi-tasking, an inappropriate environment, or too low salaries can be triggers for work stress.

Why is work stress associated with the risk of a heart attack?

There are pathophysiological mechanisms that explain why this is. Research in this regard has revealed several aspects of the increased risk.

Firstly, specialists have noticed that stressed workers associate their lifestyle with other risk factors. For example, they’re smokers to a greater extent, consume alcohol frequently, or are excessively sedentary. Poor diet also plays an important role.

When there’s stress, whatever the origin, the cerebral amygdala increases the production of substances that are behind the formation of atheroma plaques in the arteries. Also, stress instinctively activates the sympathetic nervous system, which releases noradrenaline, increasing the heart rate and closing the arteries.

If work stress causes depression -something common- substances increase in the organism such as fibrinogen and tumor necrosis factor. These substances are inflammatory and add to the other atherosclerotic processes.

Researchers have also proven that stressful situations activate the adrenal glands, which release cortisol into the blood. Cortisol, known as the stress hormone, triggers processes that can culminate in cardiac events, in addition to favoring obesity and diabetes.

A woman under pressure.
Being in constant stressful situations changes brain chemistry and increases the risk of cardiovascular events.

How to reduce your risk

It’s not easy to develop strategies to reduce the risk of myocardial infarction due to work-related stress. Many factors go beyond the work environment itself and depend on the personality of the worker or intrinsic issues such as age.

Companies and employers can establish are physical activity regimes. Heads can set up gymnasiums in the workplace or scheduled active breaks. Regular exercise can significantly reduce stress and, therefore, cardiovascular risk.

The stressed worker should also establish human support mechanisms to help them. Friendship and family ties are important means of support, especially for depression. The greater the isolation, the greater the spiral of stress.

Relaxation and stress management techniques have also proven useful. The employer can provide this space, or the employee who suffers from stress can take it upon themselves to start this initiative.

But, above all, what you really need a double commitment: employers and employees. Both must work together to reduce the risk of heart attacks associated with work-related stress. By doing their part, you’ll both establish healthier environments.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Rosa, Miguel Angel Serrano, Luís Moya Albiol, and Alicia Salvador. “Estrés laboral y salud: Indicadores cardiovasculares y endocrinos.” Anales de Psicología/Annals of Psychology 25.1 (2009): 150-159.
  • Naranjo, Diana Lucia Díaz. “Estrés laboral y sus factores de riesgo psicosocial.” Revista CES Salud Pública 2.1 (2011): 80-84.
  • M. Marmot, J. Siegrist, T. Theorell, A. Feeney Health and the psychosocial enviroment at work M. Marmot, R. Wilkinson (Eds.), Social determinants of health., Oxford University Press, New York (1999), pp. 105-131.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.