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Study: Work stress more dangerous than smoking in at-risk men

A broad international study on working life in Finland, France, Sweden and the UK tracked mortality rates in 100K people over 17 years.

Toimistotyöntekijä kuulosuojaimet päässä
Men with pre-existing conditions are most likely to be killed by complications from work-related stress. Image: Lasse Isokangas / Yle

Work stress is especially harmful for men who have been previously hospitalised by diabetes, heart attacks or strokes, according to a new international study.

Men with a history of chronic physical illness were twice as likely to die from complications arising from high stress levels than men with the same history but no reported stress.

The 17-year study spanned Finland, France, Sweden and the UK and surveyed more than 100,000 people in 1985-2002.

Initially respondents replied to questions about their lifestyles, their work and their health. Fourteen years later some 3,800 people had passed away. Results indicate that chronically ill and highly stressed male respondents had a mortality risk 1.7 times higher than comparable respondents who did not report symptoms of stress.

"Specific causes of death were not the focus of the study, but there was a clear spike in mortality linked to cardiovascular illness," says the study's Finnish lead, epidemiology professor Mika Kivimäki from the University of Helsinki and the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health.

The study defined work stress as a job situation that put strain on the worker while limiting their possibilities to alter their own circumstances.

Employers also responsible

The extensive study also shows that factors such as non-smoking, exercise and healthy blood values did not affect the high mortality risk in the at-risk respondents.

Kivimäki says that taking care of one's physical health is nonetheless extremely important. Cigarette smoke, obesity and high cholesterol all raise the likelihood of plaque developing inside our blood veins.

"Work stress was found to specifically raise the risk of this atherosclerotic plaque separating from the veins and traveling to the heart or brain, causing a heart attack or stroke respectively," Kivimäki describes. "If the traditional risks are minimised, the stress-related risks also go down. But the farther along the plaque build-up gets, the higher the stress-related risks."

Researchers say it is not enough that at-risk chronically ill men are simply urged to pay attention to their health habits. Employers, too, need to be involved in alleviating stress in the work place.

The research paper was published in June in the publication Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology. Finnish collaborators on the study included the universities of Helsinki, Turku and Oulu as well as the Swedish-language NGO Folkhälsan and the Institute of Occupational Health.

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