If you’re regularly clocking a 60 hour work week, it may feel stressful. But the toll is more than just emotional: Those long hours may also be harmful for your heart.
People who work long hours—defined as working more than 10 hours for at least fifty days of the year—have a 29% greater risk of stroke, according to a study published in June 2019 in Stroke. And those who have worked these long hours for at least a decade have a 45% greater stroke risk compared to those who work less.
Another study published in 2015 in The Lancet, involving more than 600,000 employees, found that those who worked more than 55 hours per week had a 13% greater risk of heart attack and were 33% more likely to experience a stroke than those who worked 35 to 40 hours on a weekly basis.
Why work stress can tax the heart
There are several possible reasons why working long hours is associated with an increased risk for heart disease and stroke. People who are chained to their desks are sitting for prolonged periods of time and may be less physically active overall—two risk factors for stroke. If you’re working hard, you may also be tempted to “play” hard by binge drinking, which is another risk factor.
There’s also some evidence that people who work long hours are more likely to brush off symptoms of heart disease (which makes sense—who has time to see the doctor, right?). But if left untreated, heart disease can lead to heart attack or stroke. Complicating matters, working long hours may expose you to more mental and physical hazards, including stress due to high demands, noise, dust, toxic chemicals and lack of natural light, according to a 2018 review published in Current Cardiology Reports.
How to protect your health
Unfortunately, most of us can’t quit our day jobs. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do to ease job-related stress and protect your long-term heart health, especially if you tend to work long hours.
Stress raises levels of certain hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. In the short term, this can be helpful, triggering the “fight or flight” response that helps you deal with immediate threats. Over time, however, chronic stress can increase your risk for a slew of health issues, including heart disease. If you can’t bear the thought of slogging through another day at the office, consider making some proactive changes at work. Some steps you can take include:
Find a positive work environment
A healthy workplace should provide ethical leadership and a safe environment where your efforts are recognized and rewarded. If there is a lack of trust and open communication in your workplace, it may be time for a career move.
A 2019 study of 400,000 American workers based on information from the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index examined the link between trust and openness in the workplace and seven risk factors for heart disease: smoking, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. The study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found that those who work in jobs where they don’t trust their bosses are more likely to have several of these risks.
Get the right type of exercise
It’s recommended to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity at least a few times a week. Keep in mind, if you’re short on time, physical activity can be spread out over the course of the week or broken up into quick sessions during the day. Even five minutes of exercise offers health benefits.
Take regular walk breaks
While prolonged sitting isn’t quite the new smoking, it’s relatively high up on the list of things that can take a toll on your heart. Research suggests it may not only raise the risk of heart disease but also of dying from heart disease—even if you exercise regularly.
One option is to take a one- to three-minute break every half hour or so throughout the day to go on a short walk, move around or even just stand up while you’re at work. Keep in mind, this is also a good habit to get into at home, particularly at night while you’re sitting on the sofa watching TV.
Eat fresh foods
Be wary of the sugary beverages and convenience foods—think soft drinks, packaged salty snacks, cookies, cakes, and processed meats, instant soups— in your office break room or vending machine. A heart-healthy diet that limits salt, sugar, ultra-processed foods, red meat, full-fat dairy products, fried foods and other sources of saturated fat can help you control your weight, cholesterol levels and blood pressure.
A very popular diet is the Mediterranean. This eating style emphasizes a wide variety of fruits and veggies along with whole grains, beans, nuts, lean protein (including fish) and healthy fats such as olive oil.
It’s a good idea to spend some time preparing healthy weekday meals ahead of time so when you’re tired and hungry after a long day, you don’t settle for take-out or pre-packaged foods. You’re also more likely to eat healthier during the workday if you pack your own lunch. Avoid eating at your desk or in front of your computer, which can lead to mindless snacking.
Use your vacation time
Yes, there is some evidence that vacations are good for your heart as well as your soul. Researchers have suggested that taking an annual vacation could help reduce the risk for heart disease and that not using vacation time may be associated with a greater risk for heart attack. A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health also found that even a short getaway can have restorative effects, immediately easing stress and strain.
Get enough shut-eye
Research has long found an association between sleeping too little or too much with an increased risk of heart disease, while getting seven to nine hours of shut-eye each night is the “Goldilocks” zone of healthy sleep for most people. While you sleep, your blood pressure goes down. So, if you’re short on sleep, your blood pressure remains higher for a longer period of time. Over time, this can lead to higher blood pressure during the day, which may increase your risk for heart disease. Poor sleep is also linked to weight gain, which could lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes—both risk factors for heart disease.
Know your numbers
Your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels, body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference are important measures of your heart health. It’s important to know your numbers and strive to keep them within a healthy range. Healthcare providers routinely assess these metrics at annual checkups. Talk to your doctor about the screening schedule that’s appropriate for you.
Reach out for support
If you’re feeling overwhelmed at work or if you’re having trouble managing your stress level, don’t be afraid to ask your friends, co-workers or family members for help. This may be especially true for women struggling to maintain a work-life balance.
A study published in October 2019 in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that these women may be particularly vulnerable to the negative health effects of stress. For the study, researchers examined more than 11,000 Brazilian workers between the ages of 35 and 74 and had them fill out questionnaires. They found that the women who reported the most work-family conflicts had the poorest cardiovascular health.
If your anxiety is persistent and interfering with your ability to do your job or go about your daily routine, talk to your healthcare provider. Excessive anxiety isn’t healthy and could also be a warning sign of an anxiety disorder or another medical condition that needs treatment.