The Workplace and the Heart


By Khatera Sahibzada Ph.D.

This month’s entry, in honor of American Heart month, focuses on unhealthy work environments and their impact on the heart.

According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and results in 2,200 deaths a day, 800,000 deaths a year, and 1 in 4 deaths overall. Cardiovascular disease is also the leading global cause of death resulting in 17.3 million deaths per year and claims more lives than all forms of cancer combined. It is estimated that by the year 2030 it will cost the US economy $276 billion dollars in lost productivity. And 40% of this lost productivity is a result of absenteeism, while 60% is a result of presenteeism – where an employee is in attendance but their illness prevents them from optimal performance.

Nancy Brown, the CEO of the American Heart Association, suggests that unhealthy environments are a contributing factor to cardiovascular disease. Unhealthy work environments have been a source of recent focus for healthcare practitioners and occupational stress researchers specifically.

For example, how one’s job is structured has profound implications on heart health. In particular, job strain, which is defined as having a job that is highly demanding with little control over how the job is performed, has been found as a leading culprit for heart disease in more than a dozen studies published over the last decade. Additionally, researchers have found support for other significant contributing work risk factors in cardiovascular disease including:

  • Job insecurity
  • Surviving a downsizing
  • Control over deadlines
  • Burnout
  • Work pressure
  • Leadership

Interestingly, many of these work risk factors were stronger predictors of heart disease than smoking, physical activity, or being overweight.

Specifically, the leadership style of a boss has major implications on heart health. For example, researchers have found that employees who described their leaders as “inconsiderate, aloof, and withdrawn,” had a 25% increased risk of heart attack. If an employee worked for this type of boss for more than four years, their risk of a heart attack increased to 60%.

A separate study examined leadership justice and its impact on cardiovascular disease. Bosses who are viewed as having high levels of leadership justice consider their employees viewpoints, share information concerning decision making, and treat people fairly and in an honest manner. Researchers have identified that employees who described their bosses as “just,” have a risk of cardiovascular disease 30% lower than employees who described their bosses as “unjust.” Unsurprisingly leadership justice has also been linked to psychological distress and negative emotions for employees.

The phenomenon of “workplace environment and heart health” is a very real one that imposes immense costs to both corporations and to individuals.

As the research suggests, one’s workplace environment can have immediate and long-term clinically documented cardiovascular health effects, all which affect organizational performance and invariably impact the bottom-line.