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Unstable Workplace Increases Heart Attack Risk

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

Predictable workplaces are healthy workplaces, a new study suggests. When employees feel ambiguous about their role in the organization and there is a lack of clear-cut communication, they might be at higher risk for heart attacks over time.

The 18-year study from Finland examined the possible link between job control factors and heart attacks — acute myocardial infarction — among 7,663 private sector employees.

"The risk of MI was about 1.8 times higher in a disorganized setting than in an organized setting," said Ari Vaananen, lead study author. "Clear organization of work tasks matters."

Vaananen is with the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health in Helsinki. The study appears in the December issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

For 30-plus years, adults spend about one-third of their waking hours at work. Unfortunately, many people work in environments where unpredictable job components are the norm.

Although it has long been known that risk factors such as smoking and a lack of exercise can lead to poor cardiac health, the new study finds that characteristics of a job, such as an employee's lack of control, job awareness, unexpected changes, job strain and stress, could also lead to poor cardiac health.

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"We looked at the measure of predictability, how an employee views the clarity of work goals and work roles, their ability to foresee work problems and how significant work disturbances interrupt the work process and outcome." Vaananen said.

The researchers sent questionnaires to 12,173 employees in the multinational forest industry who had worked for their company for at least 24 months and who were initially free of heart disease. In all, 9,292 employees, primarily blue-collar workers, responded.

The researchers looked at demographics, psychological distress, medical conditions and lifestyle risk factors. During the 17-year follow-up period, 56 employees died of acute myocardial infarction and 316 had nonfatal events.

Joan Gillman is the director of special industry programs at the School of Business at University of Wisconsin-Madison, "Not knowing what is expected in the workplace is stressful," Gillman said. "In my adult classes, when asked, most supervisors don't really know what is expected or what they are being judged on."

Educating the work force is important to improved predictability, Gillman said. "The more that employees know what is expected of them and are given the proper training, the less stressful it is for them."

What can employees do to change their predisposition to acute myocardial infarctions? Vaananen said, "Employees may want to acquire new skills through education. They also may want to learn how the entire system works in the organization. Good knowledge of the organization and of their own clear roles at work may decrease negative emotions and chronic stress, and lower their risk for acute myocardial infarction."

"Employees who follow these recommendations will improve their subjective health and lower their risks of physical impairment," said John Mirowsky, a professor with the Sociology Department and Population Research Center at the University of Texas, in Austin. "It is a winning formula all around."