It turns out that the stress of a demanding job, combined with having little control over it, could be a deadly combination, according to a recent UK study. In a meta-analysis of published and unpublished studies, researchers from University College London analyzed the association of job stress — defined as high work demands and low decision control — with the risk of heart disease. The review, published in The Lancet, assessed nearly 200,000 employees from seven European countries between 1985 and 2006.
At baseline, all of the study participants completed questionnaires assessing job strain, with questions ranging from workload to decision-making freedom. After controlling for certain confounding factors such as lifestyle, age, gender, and socioeconomic status, researchers found that people with highly demanding jobs and little freedom to make decisions were 23 percent more likely to experience a heart attack compared to their less stressed counterparts.
The study’s lead researcher, Dr. Mika Kivimaki, believes the findings are the first in its field to be derived from an analysis conducted with such precision and accuracy. But ACSH staffers are not as convinced and believe the research suffers from significant limitations.
“Evaluating a parameter as vague as job strain by questionnaire will be fraught with inaccuracy,” ACSH’s Dr. Gilbert Ross says. “Moreover, the study was a meta-analysis of published and unpublished studies, which means that at least some of the data had not undergone peer-review.”
And while Dr. Kivimaki suggested that reducing workplace stress might decrease disease incidence, she also acknowledged that “this strategy would have a much smaller effect than tackling standard risk factors such as smoking and physical inactivity.”
Dr. Ross agrees: “Dealing with known heart disease risk factors such as smoking, hypertension, and lipid levels will be far more beneficial to heart health than controlling workplace stress,” he says. “Individuals should aim to first address known risk factors if they’re serious about preventing adverse cardiovascular events.”