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Work stress causes heart disease

Stressed workers suffer a greatly increased risk of heart disease, a study of UK civil servants has found.

Stressful jobs have a direct biological impact on the body, the research indicated. The study reported online by the European Heart Journal focused on more than 10,000 British civil servants, part of the ongoing Whitehall II study. Those under 50 who said their work was stressful were 68 per cent more likely to develop heart disease than the stress-free. Between 5 and 10 per cent of the group were chronically stressed. Physical effects were more pronounced on weekdays, pointing to a work link.

The stressed had less time to exercise and eat well - but they also showed signs of important biochemical changes. As well as documenting how workers felt about their job, researchers monitored heart rate variability, blood pressure, and the amount of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood. They also took notes about diet, exercise, smoking and drinking. They then found out how many people had developed coronary heart disease (CHD) or suffered a heart attack and how many had died of it.

Lead researcher Dr Tarani Chandola, of University College London, said: 'During 12 years of follow up, we found that chronic work stress was associated with CHD and this association was stronger both among men and women aged under 50.' While these younger worker seemed to be more at risk, the findings were the same regardless of the status of the worker. Previous studies had suggested those in lower employment grades may be more at risk. 'We did not find strong evidence that the effect of work stress on heart disease is worse for those in lower grades - the effect of stress was pretty much the same across different grades,' said Dr Chandola.

'However, later on in the study, some parts of the civil service underwent considerable change in their working environments, including privatisation. We are currently exploring whether the effects of these changed work stress levels, partly brought about by privatisation, are particularly deleterious for those in the low grades of the civil service'.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber commented: 'This provides further evidence that stress is not just a major cause of mental health problems but is also often behind serious, and sometimes fatal, physical diseases.' The Whitehall II researchers have previously identified lack of control as the most important factor raising stress at work, with those in low-status jobs who were required to follow the orders of their bosses more stressed and likely to die sooner.

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