Americans are blessed and burdened by an unprecedented work ethic. Sociologists say that Americans work longer hours, take fewer vacation days, and retire later than employees in other industrialized countries around the globe.
Career demands and the way in which Americans are wired influence an increasing number of people to experience job burnout — physical, cognitive, and emotional exhaustion.
New research from Tel Aviv University discovers a link between job burnout and coronary heart disease (CHD), the buildup of plaque in the coronary arteries that leads to angina or heart attacks.
This clinical link is in addition to findings that burnout is also associated with obesity, insomnia, and anxiety.
In the new study, researchers discovered those who were identified as being in the top 20 percent of the burnout scale were found to have a 79 percent increased risk of coronary disease.
Calling the results “alarming,” lead research Dr. Sharon Toker says the 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.
Study results are reported in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.
Researchers say that 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. These factors lead 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 percent increased risk of developing CHD.
Significantly, the 20 percent of participants with the highest burnout scores had a 79 percent increased risk. Toker predicts that with a more extended follow-up period, the results would be even more dramatic.
Researchers believe the findings should encourage health care providers to closely monitor individuals experiencing burnout for coronary heart disease.
Once burnout begins to develop, it sparks a downwards spiral and ultimately becomes a chronic condition, Toker said.
Jobsite wellness intervention should be used to promote healthy and supportive work environments and keep watch for early warning signs of the condition. Simple diagnostic questionnaires, often in the form of health risk appraisals, are already available.
Workers can also contribute to prevention by making healthy lifestyle choices, such as exercising more regularly, getting seven to eight hours sleep per night, and seeking psychotherapy if required.