Working Long Hours Is Bad for Your Heart

Working 12-hour days boosts your risk for heart disease, a new study finds.

May 18, 2010

Takin' care of business: Working overtime puts your heart at risk.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—America is a nation built by workaholics, spurred by hard workers like Benjamin Franklin who once said, "It is the working man who is the happy man. It is the idle man who is the miserable man." And it seems that preference for working long hours attitude is, if anything, growing stronger. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average workday in this country lasts 8.8 hours, which is about an hour longer than people were working per day in the late '80s. That extra work not only eats into your leisure time, it increases your chances of getting sick. But we're not the only country feeling the effects. A new study out of Britain, published in the European Heart Journal, suggests that working long overtime hours is damaging to the heart.

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THE DETAILS: Researchers followed 6,014 British civil servants between the ages of 39 and 61 over the course of 11 years. At the start of the study, all completed a survey asking how long they worked (in hours per day) as well as a few other questions about their jobs, such as level of responsibility, what sort of demands were placed on them at work, and their salaries. Researchers also collected data on coronary heart disease risk factors such as family history, health problems such as diabetes or high blood pressure, weight, sleeping patterns, and psychological profile.

At the end of the study, medical data revealed that there were 369 coronary events during the 11-year study. Just under half the sample reported working overtime; 10 percent reported working three to four hours of overtime a day. While there was no significant increase in risk for people working one or two hours of overtime, those people who worked three hours or more were one and a half times more likely to develop coronary heart disease than people who worked no overtime. The researchers found this to be the case even after they factored in other risk factors for heart disease that are typical among overtime workers: working in a stressful job, not getting enough sleep, eating a poor diet, smoking, and drinking, and other health risks like diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.

WHAT IT MEANS: Working overtime isn't good for you. In fact, one study found that working long hours had the same effects on your cognition and vocabulary skills as smoking. But it isn't exactly clear why, says lead study author Marianna Virtanen, PhD, senior researcher at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health's Centre of Expertise for Work Organizations. "At the moment, I suggest stress and behavioral factors are the most likely candidates," she says. "When working, people have a higher activity level than when they are not working. Prolonged activity may lead to increased cortisol levels, a stress hormone which, in turn, has been found to affect the cardiovascular system adversely."

The behavioral factor she's referring to is having a type A personality, which was more common in people who worked three to four hours of overtime than non-overtime workers. Type A personalities are considered a risk factor for heart disease, the authors write, in part because "type A behavior is characterized by a chronic, incessant struggle to achieve more and more in less and less time, and is also believed to be characterized by aggressiveness and irritability." Of course, getting type A personalities to change their behaviors could be a challenge, says Virtanen. "Our society rewards such a behavior in terms of money, esteem, and success," she notes. "But they may have a turning point in life if something happens, for example, health problems or divorce."

Here are a few tips to help the type A personality in your life—or to consider for yourself if you're the workaholic:

• Figure out if they're hard workers or workaholics. In today's economy, people want to show they're valuable employees willing to put in extra effort to avoid getting laid off. If that's the case in your household, the long hours will likely cease once the economy stabilizes somewhat. But workaholics make work their whole lives. "Hard workers dream of hitting the ski slopes while at work, but it's the other way around for workaholics. They are on the ski slopes dreaming about work," says Bryan E. Robinson, PhD, author of Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them (NYU Press, 2007).

• Require downtime. One of the theories as to why overtime work can increase one's risk of coronary heart disease presented by this study's authors was that people don't get adequate downtime after work when they're working 12-hour days, which inhibits their ability to destress and get over workplace anxiety. Have your overworked loved one schedule short (15-minute) breaks throughout the day (make phone calls, if necessary, to make sure he or she is taking them). And allow them some time to relax after returning home before bringing up that meeting with your kid's principal or the fact that the water heater needs to be replaced.

• Make doctor visits as important as staff meetings. Although overtime workers in this study appeared healthy (they exercised, ate right, and got the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep per night), they were also less likely to take sick days, which suggests they could be ignoring symptoms of heart disease and not getting adequate preventive care, the authors noted. Make sure your overworked love one gets annual checkups, sticks to a healthy diet, and doesn't smoke or drink excessively.