People in the US work longer hours, take fewer holidays, and retire later than employees in other industrialised countries around
the globe. With such demanding careers, it's no surprise that many experience
job burnout — physical, cognitive, and emotional exhaustion that results from
stress at work. Researchers have found that burnout is also associated with
obesity, insomnia, and anxiety.
Now Dr. Sharon Toker of Tel Aviv University's Faculty of
Management and her fellow researchers — Profs. Samuel Melamed, Shlomo Berliner,
David Zeltserand Itzhak Shpira of TAU's Sackler Faculty of Medicine — have
found a link between job burnout and coronary heart disease (CHD), the build-up
of plaque in the coronary arteries that leads to angina or heart attacks.
Those who were identified as being in the top 20% of
the burnout scale were found to have a 79% increased risk of coronary
disease, the researchers reported in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.
Calling the results "alarming," Dr. Toker says that these findings
were more extreme than the researchers had expected — and make burnout a
stronger predictor of CHD than many other classical risk factors, including
smoking, blood lipid levels, and physical activity.
Taking a toll on the
Some of the factors that contribute to burnout are common
experiences in the workplace, including high stress, heavy workload, a lack of
control over job situations, a lack of emotional support, and long work hours.
This leads to physical wear and tear, which will eventually weaken the body.
Knowing that burnout has been associated with other
cardiovascular risk factors, such as heightened amounts of cholesterol or fat
in the bloodstream, the researchers hypothesized that it could also be a risk
factor for coronary heart disease. Over
the course of the study, a total of 8,838 apparently healthy employed men and
women between the ages of 19 and 67 who presented for routine health
examinations were followed for an average of 3.4 years. Each participant was
measured for burnout levels and examined for signs of CHD. The researchers
controlled for typical risk factors for the disease, such as sex, age, family
history of heart disease, and smoking.
During the follow-up period, 93 new cases of CHD were
identified. Burnout was associated with a 40% increased risk of developing CHD.
But the 20% of participants with the highest burnout scores had a 79% increased
risk. Dr. Toker predicts that with a more extended follow-up period, the
results would be even more dramatic.
Avoiding long-term damage
These results are valuable for preventative medicine, says
Dr. Toker. Healthcare providers who know that their patients are experiencing
burnout can closely monitor for signs of coronary heart disease as well.
Once burnout begins to develop, it sparks a downwards spiral
and ultimately becomes a chronic condition, she warns. Employers need to
prioritize prevention by promoting healthy and supportive work environments and
keeping watch for early warning signs of the condition. Simple diagnostic
questionnaires that identify burnout are already available online. Workers can
contribute to prevention by making healthy lifestyle choices, such as
exercising more regularly, getting seven to eight hours sleep per night, and
seeking psychological therapy if required.