The biggest thing I remember from my first job out of college is the weird stress dreams I would have. Each night, I’d sort of go to sleep, but stay half-awake remembering things that were on my to-do list for the next day, or that I didn’t have time to do the day before. These would then get mixed in with bizarro-world dream logic, and I’d wake up remembering nonsensical things my brain invented — “Don’t forget to get Oprah an M&M salad!” — as if they were things that actually had to do with my job. And, predictably, I went into the office each day without feeling like I’d rested at all. A new study says that this combination of insomnia and a stressful work environment can have pretty a pretty big impact on your heart health — specifically, not sleeping from work stress can increase your risk of heart-related death.
The researchers looked at almost 2,000 people with hypertension, or high blood pressure, between the ages of 25 and 65 who didn’t already have heart disease or diabetes. After an average of 18 years of follow ups, the researchers found that people who had hypertension, didn’t sleep well, and got stressed out at work were three times as likely to die from heart-related disease than people who did sleep well and managed their work stress.
"Sleep should be a time for recreation, unwinding, and restoring energy levels. If you have stress at work, sleep helps you recover,” study author Professor Karl-Heinz Ladwig said in a press release about the study. “Unfortunately poor sleep and job stress often go hand in hand, and when combined with hypertension the effect is even more toxic.”
The study, which was published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, defined a stressful job as one with “high demand and low control,” aka one where you’re responsible for a lot of moving parts, but don’t have the authority to make changes that would make your job easier. And unfortunately, as was the case in my stress dream-inducing job, that type of scenario is becoming more common for a lot of us. As a story in The New York Times that went viral this past weekend detailed, demanding jobs with long hours are not just the norm in many industries, but are a major factor in widening the gender pay gap. This is despite the fact that longer hours don’t make workers any more productive (in fact, it’s the complete opposite).
Fortunately, even though a lot of us don’t have control over how demanding our jobs are, there are lots of techniques to help you manage your stress in a toxic working environment. Mindfulness meditation is proven to lower stress levels because it helps you reframe your sense of control over a given situation. Try it out by going throughout your day noticing the sensations in your body, or in the environment around you — for example, as you drink your coffee in the morning, take conscious notice of the taste, the warmth, or the change in your energy levels. Creating boundaries with your boss and teammates, by doing things like setting up an autoreply that says you don’t check email after 7 p.m., can also help change your work culture to avoid toxic stress.
These changes might not be possible for everyone, especially folks who have low job security, but they’re low-stakes ways to make an impact. And if it helps your heart health, that’s enough of a reason to try it out.