If your job burns you out, it looks like your heart health can suffer as well as your mental health, according to a study by researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU) in Israel reported in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

In their study of nearly 9,000 male and female workers, researchers from the Faculty of Management and the Sackler Faculty of Medicine at TAU, found a link between job burnout and coronary heart disease that was independent of other known risk factors.

Coronary heart disease (CHD) is where plaque builds up on the inside walls of the arteries of the heart, eventually causing angina (chest pain resulting from restricted blood flow in coronary arteries) and heart attacks.

Research on American workers, who tend to work longer hours, take fewer holidays and retire later in life than workers in other industrialized countries, suggests many experience job burnout, which results in physical, cognitive, and emotional exhaustion.

Many of the factors that contribute to burnout are not uncommon and will be familiar to many workers. These include high levels of job stress, persistent heavy workloads, not having enough control over the job, insufficient support from supervisors and/or colleagues, and long working hours.

When they persist, these factors not only affect emotional health but also contribute to physical wear and tear, which eventually weakens the body.

Other studies have also linked burnout with insomnia, obesity, anxiety, and cardiovascular risk factors such as increased blood cholesterol.

A national survey published in 2012 found that US physicians commonly have symptoms of burnout, with at least 46% reporting at least one symptom.

With these previous findings in mind, first author Sharon Toker, a senior lecturer in organizational behavior in TAU’s Faculty of Management, and colleagues, wondered if burnout might also predispose workers to coronary heart disease.

For their study, they enrolled nearly 9,000 apparently healthy male and female workers, aged from 19 to 67, who attended the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center for routine medical checks.

The researchers followed them for an average of 3.4 years.

Each participant was assessed for burnout using a recognized scale, the Shirom-Melamed Burnout Measure, and also examined for signs of CHD.

During the follow-up, 93 new cases of CHD were identified. (The researchers defined CHD incidence as a “composite of acute myocardial infarction [heart attack], diagnosed ischemic heart disease [narrowing of heart arteries], and diagnosed angina pectoris”).

When they looked for any links between burnout and CHD, the researchers took into account effects from other known CHD risk factors such as age, gender, smoking, and family history of heart disease.

The results showed burnout was independently linked to a 40% higher risk of developing CHD.

Plus, being among the 20% of participants with the highest (ie worse) burnout scores carried a 79% higher risk for CHD compared to the 20% with the lowest score.

In a statement released this week, Toker describes the results as “alarming”, and more extreme than she and her colleagues were anticipating.

She also suggests a longer follow up period would have shown an even more dramatic set of results.

The findings put burnout as a stronger predictor of CHD than many other more well-known risk factors such as smoking, blood fat levels, and exercise.

Toker says the study show the value of prevention. She urges:

  • Healthcare providers to monitor patients who have burnout for signs of heart disease,
  • Employers to promote healthy work environments and look for early signs of burnout in their workers, and
  • Workers to protect themselves against burnout by choosing healthy lifestyle options, such as taking regular exercise, getting enough sleep, and seeking professional help where appropriate.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD