The relationship between stress and strokes has long been assumed, but recent research illustrates just how significantly occupational stress can increase someone's risk for having a stroke. In addition to the physiological strain it puts on the body, stress can indirectly impact a person's health as well. For example, people in stressful occupations tend to use unhealthy coping mechanisms such as smoking or overeating, which in turn increases their stroke risk. Stressed out workers often have poorly managed diets, limited exercise habits and irregular sleeping patterns, all of which also contribute to stroke and heart disease.
In 2015, The American Academy of Neurology published a meta-analysis of six studies on the topic of strokes and job stress. According to their data, men in high stress positions are at a 22 percent greater risk for stroke than the rest of the work force. For women, working too hard increases their stroke risk up to 33 percent. The studies, which included more than 130,000 participants, examined how factors like psychological demand, number of duties and the amount of control employees have over their work impacts stroke risk. High stress jobs were defined as occupations with high demands that offer little control, which includes many service industry jobs such as waiting tables and nursing. The studies did not consider the strain of physical labor or total hours worked per week, but these stressors are also suspected to play a role in stroke susceptibility.
Unsurprisingly, high incidences of ischemic strokes in particular were documented among stressed out workers. Ischemic strokes result from blow flow blockage and are the most commonly diagnosed stroke type.
Researchers have suggested several workplace reforms that could help lower employees' stress levels. Such interventions include giving workers more control over their jobs, allowing them to make more decisions and offering more flexible hours via telecommuting. Significant changes in work environments could lead to major improvements in public health. Unfortunately, most people have little control over their working conditions, so until employers take the initiative, workers must learn to cope with their stress in healthy ways to lessen their risk of stroke.
The Stress Epidemic in the U.S.
Even people who love what they do for a living experience stress at work. Some stress can motivate workers to meet deadlines and perform at their best, but too much stress over long periods of time can cause devastating effects to their physical and mental health. When combined with other risk factors like high blood pressure or high cholesterol, it's reasonable to assume that high job stress can trigger a stroke.
In a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2012, 65 percent of respondents cited their job as the chief source of stress in their lives. The most commonly reported work stressors included low pay, long hours and lack of upward mobility. Sadly, less than 37 percent of participants believed that they were doing a very good job managing their stress. Another APA survey from 2013 suggests that over one-third of Americans have chronic occupational stress, yet only 36 percent say that their employers offer resources or interventions for stress management. Stress is an inevitable part of work and life in general, so everyone must be proactive in preventing it from leading to health issues.
Stroke Signs and Symptoms
Strokes can suddenly kill a seemingly healthy individual, and identifying the signs of a stroke early increases their likelihood of survival.
The National Institute of Health ranks strokes as the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. Anyone who suspects they are having a stroke should immediately go to an emergency room within an hour or call 911.
The National Stroke Association uses the acronym F.A.S.T. to help people remember how to identify a stoke:
“F" is for “Face”: An uneven smile or drooping face is an early symptom of strokes.
“A” is for “Arms”: Numbness or weakness in the limbs is common in stroke patients. If the patient is unable to hold their arms up, that is a big warning sign.
"S” is “Speech”: Strokes can cause patients to slur their words. They may also appear confused and be unable to quickly respond to questions.
“T” is for “Time”: If any of the above symptoms are present, time is limited. Patients should seek medical treatment right away to avoid long-term health complications or death.
Other Health Risks of Work Stress
Occupational stress can continue affecting a person's health long after the work day ends. Short term symptoms of stress can include headaches, stomach pain, irritability, sleep disturbances and trouble concentrating. When stress becomes chronic, it can lead to anxiety, hypertension, insomnia and a compromised immune system. Left untreated, these symptoms can increase a person's risks for obesity, heart disease and depression. Many people who are under constant stress also struggle with eating a healthy diet, and they sometimes use unhealthy coping mechanisms such as smoking or drinking alcohol, all of which inflates a person's risks for serious health complications.
Successfully Managing Stress at Work
Incorporating healthy eating habits and routine physical activity into daily life goes a long way in mitigating the toll stress takes on the body.
Maintaining normal blood pressure is also vital to heart health. Below are some safe strategies for managing stress and therefore reducing your risk factors for strokes.
Keep a Stress Journal: Keeping a record of your daily activities for a few weeks can help you identify your biggest stressors and better plan for confronting them. Make notes about your thoughts, feelings and circumstances surrounding stressful situations. Think about your reactions and try to notice any unhealthy behaviors. Then make a list of things you can do to make yourself feel better, such as taking a walk or listening to music.
Schedule Time for Hobbies: Whether you like to cook, do yoga, read or play video games, set aside time to do pleasurable activities by yourself and with others. Building relationships with friends and family members can also be a great way to lessen the impact of work stress.
Prioritize Sleep: Your body needs regular rest to keep going. If you struggle with getting to sleep, regulate your caffeine consumption, and avoid watching TV or surfing the web before bed.
Set Boundaries Between Work and Home: This is especially difficult if you work from home, but even then it's possible to take time off. Thanks to smartphones and laptops, workers are finding it more difficult to disconnect from their work duties when they're not on the clock. Establish some rules for yourself that you know you can stick with to set boundaries between work and home life. For example, you could make it your policy not to check emails or answer work calls after a certain time.
Use Your Vacation Days: Vacation days are a privilege in today's economy, so take advantage of them when you can.
Practice Stress Relief at Work: Before starting work, begin your day with a relaxing activity such as taking a walk or just enjoying a healthy breakfast with no distractions. If possible, decorate your work area with things that inspire you such as pictures or a colorful plant. Read about meditation, and learn how to incorporate mindfulness into day-to-day life. Try to focus on doing only one thing at a time, and reward yourself for big accomplishments. Regularly stand up and move around to keep your blood flowing. Most importantly, make sure your brain is getting enough oxygen. Regulating your breath can be difficult under stress, so set aside time to practice deep breathing if you need to.
Communicate with your Superiors: Employers have an interest in helping their employees manage stress because healthy workers tend to be more productive. Do not just present a list of complaints, but explain how job stress is hindering your performance, and offer suggestions for actions your supervisors could take to improve the situation. Your boss may offer suggestions for you personally, such as developing better time management strategies, or they may be able to find resources to help you such as employer-sponsored wellness programs. Employers can also help limit their workers' stress by establishing clear expectations, encouraging support between colleagues and providing a comfortable and visually appealing environment.
Accept Support: Do not hold all of your stress inside. Simply venting to family and friends about a stressful situation can be enough to alleviate the strain. Many employers will gladly refer their employees to stress management resources. If stress is impeding your daily functioning, you may need to seek services from a psychologist or other mental health professional who can help you develop better coping strategies. There is no shame in asking for help.