Work-life Imbalance Harms the Heart

The American Heart Association has long said that stress impacts the heart because it can alter many contributing factors in heart disease, such as blood pressure levels. Stress affects everything from inflammation to sleep to wound healing. Unsurprisingly, research from the Univ. of Sao Paulo found that stress caused by a negative work-life balance does damage to heart health — especially for women.

The study looked at over 11,000 people. The participants were aged 35-74 and were followed for a decade to see results. The heart health scores and their relationship to work stress were calculated through lab tests, clinical exams and questionnaires. While work-life balance impacted both sexes, it harmed women more than men. This may be because women are traditionally the primary caregivers at home. Men may not have the stress of coming home to cleaning or getting dinner on the table. The fewer conflict a woman had between her work and home lives, the better her heart health.

You feel the stress to fulfill the gender roles, and I think women still feel more of a need to have that nurturing home life,” said Dr. Gina Price Lundberg, clinical director of the Emory Women’s Heart Center. “Men are helping more than ever, but I think working women still feel the stress of trying to do it all.”

This was interesting because in our previous study, job stress alone affected men and women almost equally,” said Dr. Itamar Santos, the lead author of the report. “But we found that for work-family conflict, women are more affected than men. They seem to be especially susceptible to this kind of stress.”

Workplace intervention and making sure offices consider employee well-being could make a big difference. Having employers note the problem and make positive changes can go a long way toward alleviating stress. Some companies have initiatives to keep work to work hours — limiting email access in the evening or weekend, rewarding employees for taking time off to do charity work. “We’re not going to eliminate stress. But we should learn how to live with it to not have so many bad consequences,” said Dr. Santos.

He and his team intend to keep working with the same participants for another decade. “We want to see how these metrics of stress are associated with change in cardiovascular health over a long period,” explained Dr. Santos, “and to see how some people with the same levels of stress may have other characteristics that protect them from cardiovascular disease.”

Hopefully, the researchers will find ways to mitigate stress at work and allow men and women to enjoy their time at work and home without stress taking a toll on their health. In the meantime, people should remind themselves to take deep breathes and relax whenever possible. Stress may be unavoidable, but there are steps you can take to protect yourself and your heart.
October 24, 2019
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