Dealing with discrimination at work — from bosses or coworkers — may be enough to send your blood pressure through the roof, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that among more than 1,200 U.S. workers, those who felt they often faced on-the-job discrimination were 54% more likely to develop high blood pressure, versus workers with little exposure to such bias.
Over eight years, people who’d often experienced workplace discrimination developed high blood pressure at a rate of about 4% each year. That compared with 2.5% per year among people who rarely or never had those experiences.
Experts said the study, published April 26 in the Journal of the American Heart Association, cannot prove cause and effect.
“But our findings suggest workplace discrimination as a potential risk factor for high blood pressure,” said lead researcher Dr. Jian Li, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
For one, he said, the study followed workers over time, showing that their experiences of discrimination preceded their high blood pressure diagnosis.
Plus, Li said, there are “biologically plausible” reasons that the stressful situation could contribute to rising blood pressure.
During times of stress, the body responds in various ways, which includes a release of hormones that “activate” the cardiovascular system. Over time, chronic stress may add to the wear and tear on the body, and impede its ability to recover from situational stressors.
It’s also possible, Li said, for ongoing stress to take a health toll in “indirect” ways — making it harder to exercise, disrupting sleep, or pushing people to cope in unhealthy ways, like smoking or drinking.
Studies have long dug into the connection between chronic stress and physical health, and more recently research has started to focus on the health consequences of systemic racism. But little has been known about the potential effects of work discrimination specifically, according to Li.
So, his team looked at data from a long-term study of middle-aged Americans’ health and well-being. They focused on 1,246 participants who were working and free of high blood pressure when they entered the study back in 2004-2006.
At the outset, participants answered questions about workplace discrimination, such as, “How often do you feel you are ignored or not taken seriously by your boss?” and “How often do your coworkers use ethnic, racial or sexual slurs or jokes?”
Over the next eight years, 319 participants said they’d been newly diagnosed with high blood pressure. And the odds rose in tandem with the amount of workplace discrimination participants had reported.
The one-third who’d reported the most exposure to discrimination were 54% more likely to develop high blood pressure than the one-third with the least exposure. That was after the researchers factored in many other variables — such as age, race, income and education level, and exercise, smoking and drinking habits.
Given that people spend so much of their lives at work, it’s “very important” to study the health effects of job exposures, said Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, chief medical officer for prevention at the American Heart Association.
“The stressors in life may be related to cardiovascular health in ways we may not have thought of,” said Sanchez, who was not involved in the study.
Both doctors said that employers can use findings like these in creating a better work environment.
“In the past, we often used the term ‘working conditions’ to describe our work environment,” Li said. “Nowadays, we need to consider more broadly the quality of work life, which includes more human factors and psychosocial factors.”
That’s important not only for employees, but businesses, too, Sanchez pointed out.
“Addressing discrimination is the right thing to do,” he said. But in addition that, he noted, it’s also in employers’ interests to have healthier, happier employees.
It’s not only bosses who matter, however — as the study asked people about interactions with coworkers, too.
People should be aware that even words they consider “jokes” can have lasting effects on others, Sanchez said.
“I see this as ‘do unto others,'” he said. “We need to be thoughtful about the words we use, and how we interact with each other.”
The American Heart Association has advice on stress and blood pressure.
SOURCES: Jian Li, MD, PhD, professor, Fielding School of Public Health and School of Nursing, University of California, Los Angeles; Eduardo Sanchez, MD, MPH, chief medical officer for prevention, American Heart Association, Dallas; Journal of the American Heart Association, April 26, 2023, online
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