Bullying coworkers and workplace violence heighten your risk of heart attack, study finds

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This bullying explainer that defines what bullying is, who is affected by it, and how prevention is possible.
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This bullying explainer that defines what bullying is, who is affected by it, and how prevention is possible.

No one likes domineering, bullying coworkers, or threatening situations at work — especially when those situations lead to violence.

But could those toxic workplaces actually cause heart attacks?

A new study finds that workplace bullying and violence victims have a higher risk of coming down with heart problems, including heart attacks, heart disease and strokes. That doesn’t necessarily mean bullying (or even violent) work situations directly cause cardiovascular problems — but the study does show a “robust” association between bullying and those heart-related issues, the authors said in a news release.

Still, a cause-and-effect link is very possible.

“If there is a causal link between bullying or violence at work and cardiovascular disease, then the removal of workplace bullying would mean we could avoid five percent of all cardiovascular cases, and the eradication of violence at work would avoid more than three percent of all cases,” University of Copenhagen researcher Tianwei Xu, the study’s author, said in a statement.

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Published this week in the European Heart Journal, the study analyzed nearly 80,000 adult workers in Sweden and Denmark who participated in three long-term studies. None of them had histories of cardiovascular disease, and the participants’ experience of workplace bullying and violence was followed for years.

Researchers said 9 percent of workers said coworkers were bullying them, while 13 percent said they had been victims of violence — or threats of violence — at work in the previous year.

Bullied workers had a 59 percent higher risk of cardiovascular disease, and victims of violence or threats of violence had a 25 percent higher risk, researchers said. And more bullying and violence meant an even greater risk of heart problems — with workers bullied every day having a 120 percent higher risk of cardiovascular issues.

Researchers kept track of workers’ alcohol consumption, smoking habits, mental problems, health conditions and body mass index to make sure those other factors weren’t responsible for the increased risk of heart attack and other heart-related issues.

Xu cautioned about too closely associating bullying with physical violence, or the threat of it.

“Workplace bullying and workplace violence are distinct social stressors at work,” Xu said. “Only 10-14 percent of those exposed to at least one type of exposure were suffering from the other at the same time.”

Violent situations at work are usually (in 91 percent of cases) caused by outsiders, rather than by coworkers, the study found. But bullying usually comes from coworkers, with 79 percent reporting workplace bullying from fellow employees rather than from outsiders.

Researchers said bullying and violence increased risk of heart problems to an extent that’s comparable to how diabetes and drinking increase risk.

It’s possible that high blood pressure — brought on by severe stress — is to blame, researchers said. Another factor could be over-eating and over-drinking triggered by workplace-related anxiety and depression. But researchers are still looking into the exact link between bullying, violence and heart problems, they said.

“It is important to prevent workplace bullying and workplace violence from happening, as they constitute major stressors for those exposed,” Xu said. “It is also important to have policies for intervening if bullying or violence occurs.”

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