Workplace bullies are putting your heart at risk

How could workplace bullies possibly threaten your heart health?
How could workplace bullies possibly threaten your heart health?

If you're bullied by a bad boss or co-worker, your heart may pay the price, new research shows. Victims of on-the-job bullying or violence faced a higher risk of heart disease and stroke, the researchers found.

The new study of more than 79 000 European workers couldn't prove cause and effect. But if there is a causal link, eliminating workplace bullying "would mean we could avoid 5% of all cardiovascular cases," theorized study leader Tianwei Xu. She's a doctoral student at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

One expert in the United States agreed that workplace bullying is certainly unhealthy.

Even if trouble at work doesn't cause heart issues, it can "certainly exacerbate cardiac diseases", said Curtis Reisinger. He's chief of psychiatric services at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York.

In the new study, Xu's team tracked long-term data from more than 79 000 working adults in Denmark and Sweden, aged 18 to 65, with no prior history of heart disease.

Nine percent reported being bullied at work and 13% reported experiencing violence or threats of violence at work in the past year.

After adjusting for a number of factors, the researchers found that those who were bullied at work had a 59 percent higher risk of heart disease than those not exposed to bullying. People who were subjected to on-the-job violence or threats had a 25% higher risk versus those without such experiences.

The risks appeared to rise with the level of the threat, according to a news release from the European Society of Cardiology. Compared with those who weren't bullied, people who said they were bullied frequently (almost every day) in the past 12 months had a 120% higher risk of heart disease, the study authors said.

And compared with those who weren't subjected to workplace violence or threats, those most frequently affected had a 36% higher risk of stroke and other brain blood vessel problems, the findings showed.

Broken heart syndrome

Dr Satjit Bhusri is a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. Reading over the findings, he said that "we are starting to understand more and more the concept of stress-induced heart disease, otherwise known as 'broken heart syndrome.' This study shows an association between one such stressor, bullying, and the heart disease."

Reisinger said it makes sense that workplace stressors can tax the heart.

He explained that, like many other animals, humans can be stressed into a state of "arousal" that, if constant, can do cardiovascular harm. Workplace bullying, especially, can perpetuate this stressed state "into our home, recreation, sleep and vacations."

Bosses are the usual sources of this stress, and "from a human resources perspective, people are said to leave their boss, not their job," Reisinger said. "Their boss is the person central to maintaining or promoting or ignoring workplace incivility."

But even if you are unfortunate to have a bullying boss, there are ways to cope.

"Stress-reduction skills training include such techniques as progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness skills training, cognitive behavioral skills training, biofeedback, yoga and similar skills," Reisinger said. "These can go a long way in calming your reactions to a hostile work environment."

The findings were published Nov. 18 in the European Heart Journal.

Image: iStock

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