Friends and family could be the cure for work related stress

On-the-job stress can increase your blood pressure, adding to your risk of having a heart attack or stroke, according to evidence from two new studies by Heart and Stroke Foundation researchers.

One of the studies suggests that a happy marriage may offset some of the negative effects, and the other has found that social solidarity among workers goes some way to lessening stress.

“Dealing with stress is important to protect your heart health,” says Dr. George Honos, Heart and Stroke Foundation spokesperson. “These studies give us valuable information about what helps people manage their stress.”

Employees from a large Toronto teaching hospital and from public organizations in Quebec City offered up their working lives – and blood pressures – for detailed analysis. The results were presented at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress 2004, hosted by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and the Canadian Cardiovascular Society.

The spousal findings come from Heart and Stroke Foundation researcher Dr. Sheldon Tobe of Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sciences Centre, Toronto.

Dr. Tobe says that feelings of helplessness and lack of decision making powers in the face of escalating demands by supervisors and employers is a significant contributor to workers’ high blood pressure.

Dr. Tobe enrolled 248 full-time Toronto hospital workers in his study. All were married or with partners. The subjects wore an ambulatory blood pressure monitor for 24 hours – at work, and at home with their spouses. One hundred and thirty-five of the subjects were women, 113 were men. Mean age was 50.8 years. All filled in questionnaires designed to evaluate job stress and marital cohesion.

Over the 24 hour period, job stress was associated with increased systolic blood pressure.

“But we also found that spouses who enjoy each other’s company actually modulate their blood pressure down when they are together, away from work,” says Dr. Tobe.

Dr. Alain Milot of Laval University presented, on behalf of his colleagues, Dr. Chantal Brisson, Dr. Chantal Guimont and others, results from a seven-year study on workers of 22 public organizations in Quebec City. Between 1991 and 1993, 7,485 white-collar workers were recruited for the study. At follow-up, 7.6 years later, 6,206 (85% of the initial group) were reevaluated. They were 18-65 years old, without cardiovascular disease or hypertension, not pregnant, and worked 20 hours or more per week.

The authors found that although stress resulting from job strain makes a significant contribution to high blood pressure and heart disease, companionship of fellow workers significantly reduces stress levels.

“Job strain is a combination of high levels of psychological demand at a rapid pace coupled with low decision latitude - a feeling of having no control, no empowerment, no opportunity to use one’s skills,” says Dr. Milot.

“But sometimes things are made worse because workers may have a perception of their job that adds to the stress level. We have found that the social support of colleagues or supervisors can significantly modify this,” he says. “The worst situation to be in is a combination of high demand, low latitude and low social support.”

Dr. Milot says the study suggests that preventive intervention that would make a more worker-friendly environment could reduce heart disease risk.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation is a leading funder of heart and stroke research in Canada. Our mission is to improve the health of Canadians by preventing and reducing disability and death from heart disease and stroke through research, health promotion and advocacy.

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