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Whitehall study links work stress and heart attack risk

High-pressure jobs which cause chronic stress at work can dramatically increase the risk of a heart attack.

Scientists have uncovered the biological mechanism that shows how work stress causes ill health, providing the strongest evidence yet of its link with heart disease. The Whitehall study has followed more than 10,000 civil servants since the mid-1980s, and its findings could lead to tougher guidelines for employers on reducing stress.

Workers under 50 identified as chronically stressed were 68 per cent more likely to suffer a heart attack or angina (chest pain). Stress was measured by questions on working conditions and blood tests for stress hormones and heart-rate variability. Between 5 and 10 per cent of the group were chronically stressed. Physical effects were more pronounced on weekdays, suggesting a link with work.

Tarani Chandola, a senior lecturer in the Department of Epidemiology at University College London, said: "A lot of scientists question whether it is work stress or stress from other parts of people's lives, or whether some people just have angry personalities that is the cause. We showed there is an association between the stress people reported and their biological responses."

Stress can be positive or negative depending on whether it is driven by excitement or fear. Earlier results from the studies, led by Professor Sir Michael Marmot and published in the European Heart Journal, identified lack of control as the most important factor raising stress at work.

Those in low-status jobs who were required to follow the orders of their bosses were more stressed, and died sooner, than the hot-shot executives handing out the orders. High-octane lifestyles, it turned out, were often less stressful than humdrum ones.