You know that work stress is a killer, but it can be especially deadly for many men…those living with diabetes or heart disease.

Many studies have shown that stress can increase your risk for cardiometabolic disease—meaning diabetes, coronary heart disease or stroke—or, if you have the disease, make it worse. Scientists in seven European countries wanted to find out just how big a risk factor work stress is for people with existing cardiometabolic disease.

From a pool of more than 100,000 people, average age 44 at the start of the study, the researchers compared people who had cardiometabolic disease and work stress—defined as a combination of high demands with little control—with people with cardiometabolic disease but no work stress. Then they compared the impact of work stress with the impact of other health risks including smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, heavy drinking and being inactive by looking at the death rates among both groups over almost 14 years of the study.

The results: Men with work stress and cardiometabolic disease had about a 50% higher chance of dying during the study than male and female participants free of work stress—even when they were following their prescribed treatment plans for their medical conditions. What’s more, work stress was just about as deadly as smoking and deadlier than all the other health risks that were looked at.

Women with work stress fared much better. Their risk for death during the study was only about 10% higher than that of women and men without work stress.


Of course, one way to eliminate the health risks for stress is to eliminate the stress—but that’s not possible for a great many people whose stress is tied to their employment. Researchers did suggest, as a first step, that people with high-stress jobs (and especially men) have some sort of stress evaluation to see if work stress is in the danger zone. The American Institute of Stress, for example, offers a free self-test online. In some cases, working fewer hours, changing jobs or taking early retirement might be the only ways to eliminate the health risk of staying in a high-stress work environment.

If those moves aren’t practical? For other ideas about reducing work stress, Bottom Line turned to Christine Barnabic of the Center for Integrative Medicine at University of Maryland School of Medicine where she works on workplace wellness initiatives at University of Maryland, Baltimore, and the University of Maryland Medical Center. She noted that stress is not by any means just a psychological state—for example, the stress hormone cortisol, known to increase the risk for cardiometabolic disease, is released as part of the body’s fight-or-flight response to stress. And to reduce the physical harm of stress, it’s vital to counter the fight-or-flight response by activating another part of your nervous system, one that slows down your heart and reduces stress—your relax-and-digest response. You can do this by…

  • Improving your work-life balance. When you leave work, really leave it. If at all possible, don’t check your work e-mail from home or bring work home with you.
  • Making genuine connections with other people at work. Having a friend to talk to can be a big stress reducer.
  • Trying new stress-reduction activities such as mindfulness meditation, guided relaxation, a fitness class and/or a yoga class.
  • Keeping a gratitude journal. Writing about all the things you are grateful for can put stress in perspective.
  • Taking short breaks from your work more often throughout the day.
  • Moving more. Movement is a great stress reducer. If you can’t get up to walk at work, do some shoulder exercises for three minutes at your desk. Simply lift your shoulders toward your ears and then let them relax. See more desk exercises here.
  • Starting a breathing practice at work. Take a few minutes to be still and do deep breathing.

Barnabic suspects that one reason women tend to be harmed less by stress at work is that they’re more likely to admit to stress and to try some of the fixes above…while men are more likely to grit their teeth and try to bear it. But the truth is, over time, you don’t just bear it—stress takes its toll. Besides all the above ideas, she suggests that employees talk with their bosses and/or human resources managers about their work stresses. Many companies recognize the danger of stress and may be willing to help you make changes.

Final advice: Even if you’re doing everything possible to manage your medical conditions, if you don’t get anywhere in reducing stress at work, consider working with a mental health counselor. Don’t deny your stress or try to tough it out. That could be deadly.

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