Surprisingly, although the researchers found that women who feared they might lose their jobs tended to smoke, weigh too much, and have high blood pressure and high cholesterol, that didn't translate into a higher risk of heart disease compared with those who felt secure in their jobs. Researchers say job strain in the end was related to higher cardiac risk over the years, but job insecurity was not. They are not sure why this was true.
Unexpectedly, the researchers found that women who had demanding jobs but little control and highly demanding jobs with a great deal of control both had an increased risk of heart disease.
Previous research has found that the jobs that most endanger the heart are those where people face high demands but have little say or control over their work.
While a certain amount of stress can increase productivity and creativity, too much can be mentally and physically damaging. Stress not only provokes negative behaviors such as binging on junk food, smoking and excessive drinking, but also can lead to ailments ranging from colds and flu to depression, high blood pressure and memory loss.
Stress that persists over the years can exacerbate conditions such as heart disease and hardening of the arteries, experts say. Research indicates stress can also speed the aging process.
Men at work
Researchers around the world have extensively studied men in the workplace. These studies found men with high job stress have between a 30 to 70 percent higher risk of cardiovascular disease than those with low job stress.
Peter Schnall, M.D., professor of medicine at the University of California at Irvine who has extensively researched the relationship between work and heart health, says that as women continue to work in these harsh economic times, heart disease in women may increase. Indeed, he says women may face an even greater risk for heart disease brought on by work stress than men. Women, he says, are more likely than men to have poor paying jobs, less control in the workplace and high demands at work — all conditions linked to work stress. And, he added, women often have the extra burden of taking care of a number of family members, including children and older relatives.
Although women may soon make up the majority of the U.S. workforce, surveys by the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics find that women still shoulder most of the burden of child care and household chores, leaving them less personal time than men.
"They protect men from dealing with a lot of these burdens," says Schnall, who also sponsors the "The Job Stress Network" website.
Women at work
Job strain has both immediate and long-term health effects on women. In the short term, women tend to be less physically active and have high cholesterol, both well-established risk factors for heart disease.
Schnall says that although women don't tend to get early heart disease, they have more heart disease than men when they hit their 70s and 80s. He says that years of balancing both family and work and contending with conflicting responsibilities — often with little support — can put a heavy burden on the heart.
Paul Landsbergis, an associate professor at the State University of New York Downstate School of Public Health in Brooklyn, another expert in the field of heart health and work, points out that because the study only looked at health workers and didn't repeat the survey questions over the years, it may actually have underestimated a working woman's risk of heart disease.
The study, he says, "raises all sorts of questions about what we should do about this or what we can do." Because heart disease and stroke are the number one killer in America, "we need to do more to improve jobs and to reduce stress."
Nissa Simon is a freelance writer who lives in New Haven, Conn.