Being bullied at work can affect your heart – go tell your boss

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Office bully

An observational study by University of Copenhagen shows bullying and violence at workplace increase risk of cardiovascular diseases

If you have to deal with bullies at work, you may have always suspected this, but here comes official confirmation.

People who are bullied at work or experience violence at work are at higher risk of heart and brain blood vessel problems, including heart attacks and stroke. This is according to the largest prospective study to investigate the link, which has been published in the European Heart Journal

Although the study is observational and, therefore, cannot show that workplace bullying or violence cause cardiovascular problems, but it does establish that there is an association between the two. Researchers say their results are robust and have important implications for employers and national governments.

Those who were bullied or experienced violence (or threats of violence) at work had a 59% and 25% higher risk of CVD respectively compared to people who were not exposed to bullying or violence

Tianwei Xu, a PhD student at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, who led the study, said: “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 per cent of all cardiovascular cases, and the eradication of violence at work would avoid more than three per cent of all cases.”

The researchers looked at data from 79,201 working men and women in Denmark and Sweden, aged 18 to 65, with no history of cardiovascular disease (CVD), who were participants in three studies that started between 1995 and 2011; the participants have been followed up ever since. When they joined the studies, the participants were asked about bullying and violence in the workplace and how frequently they experienced each of them. Information on the number of cases of heart and brain blood vessel disease and deaths was obtained from nationwide registries.

Xu and her colleagues also took account of other factors that could affect whether or not the participants were affected by CVD, such as body mass index, alcohol consumption, smoking, mental disorders and other pre-existing health conditions, shift working and occupation.

Nine per cent of participants reported being bullied at work and 13% reported experiencing violence or threats of violence at work in the past year. After adjusting for age, sex, country of birth, marital status and level of education, the researchers found that those who were bullied or experienced violence (or threats of violence) at work had a 59% and 25% higher risk of CVD respectively compared to people who were not exposed to bullying or violence.

The more bullying or violence that was encountered, the greater the risk of CVD. Compared with people who did not suffer bullying, people who reported being bullied frequently (the equivalent to being bullied almost every day) in the past 12 months had 120% higher risk of CVD, while those who were exposed most frequently to workplace violence had a 36% higher risk of cerebrovascular disease (such as stroke) than those not exposed to violence, but there did not appear to be a corresponding increase in heart disease.

Xu said: “Workplace bullying and workplace violence are distinct social stressors at work. Only 10-14% of those exposed to at least one type of exposure were suffering from the other at the same time. These stressful events are related to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease in a dose-response manner – in other words, the greater the exposure to the bullying or violence, the greater the risk of cardiovascular disease.

 

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