Workplace Bullying Could Be Harmful to Heart Health

A new study indicates that workplace bullying could put people at higher risk for cardiovascular problems than those who don’t face these challenges at work.

workplace bullying

The European Heart Journal published the study’s findings Monday. In the study, researchers analyzed survey data from 79,201 women and men between 18 and 65 years old with no history of heart problems. According to the data, approximately 9 percent of them said they had been subject to workplace bullying and 13 percent said that violence on the job had affected them within the past year.

Following an average follow-up time of more than 12 years, 3,229 of these workers, approximately 4 percent of the study, had received a heart disease diagnosis or been hospitalized for adjacent injuries, including heart attack or stroke.

After adjusting for numerous factors, researchers found that employees who were exposed to workplace bullying were 59 percent more likely to be among those diagnosed or hospitalized than those who did not encounter these issues. Furthermore, workers who had been affected by violence at work were 25 percent more likely to develop heart disease or be hospitalized for related health issues.

These risk levels also seem to correlate with the threat level. In comparison to those who did not experience workplace bullying, people who reported they experienced frequent bullying (nearly every day) in the past 12 months had a 120 percent higher heart disease risk.  And, those who were most frequently affected by workplace violence or threats had a 36 percent increase in stroke and other brain vessel problem risks.

“If we can eliminate workplace bullying and workplace violence, the impact on cardiovascular disease prevention would be similar to if we prevent diabetes and risky alcohol drinking,” lead study author Tianwei Xu of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark concluded.

Workplace Bullying Overarching Implications

The study’s researchers are continuing to investigate the specific mechanisms, behavioral and biological, that could contribute to the increased risk of cardiovascular disease in people who experience workplace bullying or violence.

Arduous work conditions, such as job strain and long hours, have long been connected to increased risks for heart disease. However, previous research hasn’t provided a clear indication of what role exposure to bullying and violence plays in these risks.

Researchers suggest that workplace stressors, such as bullying and violence, could also potentially contribute to mood disorders like depression or anxiety and even fuel other unhealthy behaviors like smoking, drinking or eating in excess. Extreme stress can also contribute to high blood pressure, increasing cardiovascular risks.

Workplace bullying and psychologically aggressive behavior affected 8 percent to 13 percent of workers across the three surveys that researchers examined. Most of these bullies were supervisors, coworkers or subordinates rather than clients or other individuals not actually employed at the workplace.

Approximately 7 percent to 17 percent of workers experienced threatened or physical violence. The physical violence perpetrators were generally clients or other people the businesses served, rather than other workers.

Researchers noted that certain jobs appeared to have greater risks for physical violence. More than 47 percent of social workers, 29 percent of personal and protective service workers, 25 percent of healthcare workers and more than 16 percent of teachers experienced physical violence.

Workplace Bullying and “Broken Heart Syndrome”

workplace bullying

“We are starting to understand more and more the concept of stress-induced heart disease, otherwise known as ‘broken heart syndrome.’ This study shows an association between one such stressor, bullying, and the heart disease,” Dr. Satjit Bhusri, a New York City Lenox Hill Hospital cardiologist, said of the findings.

Curtis Reisinger, chief of psychiatric services at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, also weighed in on the study’s conclusions, saying that it’s logical that workplace stressors would tax the heart. According to Reisinger, humans, like other animals, can be stressed into an “arousal” state that can cause cardiovascular harm. Workplace bullying can spread this stressed state “into our home, recreation, sleep and vacations.”

“From a human resources perspective, people are said to leave their boss, not their job,” Reisinger said. “Their boss is the person central to maintaining or promoting or ignoring workplace incivility.”

However, even in the face of a bullying boss, Reisinger suggests implementing stress relief methodologies to combat the physically negative effects of the workplace.

“Stress-reduction skills training include such techniques as progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness skills training, cognitive behavioral skills training, biofeedback, yoga and similar skills,” Reisinger said. “These can go a long way in calming your reactions to a hostile work environment.”

The new study wasn’t designed to prove that workplace bullying or violence contributes to heart disease and related events. However, the author the study’s accompanying editorial, Christoph Herrmann-Lingen of the University of Gottingen Medical Center in Germany, said this doesn’t mean workers should ignore these problems.

“Workers who feel bullied or those who experience threat of violence or actual violence should take these events seriously and seek support for solving the underlying conflicts and obtaining support in dealing with the resulting emotional distress,” he advised.


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