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Firing Workers Might Be Hazardous to Health

Workplace: Research suggests brief spurts of on-the-job stress increase the risk of heart attack.

March 20, 1998| From Associated Press

Feel bad for folks who get fired? Maybe you should pity those who do the firing.

A new study released Thursday found that managers run double their usual risk of a heart attack during the week after they give someone the ax.

The research offers some of the strongest evidence yet that even brief spurts of on-the-job stress can be bad for the heart.

The study, conducted at 45 hospitals across the United States, attempted to see whether anything that happened at work in the days before people's heart attacks might have contributed to their health problems.

"The strongest effect was for working under a high-pressure deadline and having to fire someone," said Dr. Murray A. Mittleman of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Most people probably already suspect that bad things at work might be hard on the heart. But there has been virtually no research to prove that a specific stressful incident can actually trigger a heart attack.

Some studies have suggested that chronic work stress--especially pressures that are beyond employees' direct control--contribute to heart disease. However, many experts are skeptical about how important this kind of stress really is because just about everybody who works for a living has at least some daily job stress.

"What's different about this study is trying to individualize discrete episodes of stress, instead of having people simply saying, 'I'm stressed,' " said Dr. Philip Greenland of Northwestern University, who was not involved in the study.

Mittleman presented his findings at an epidemiology meeting sponsored by the American Heart Assn.

Between 1989 and 1994, doctors interviewed 791 working people who had just undergone heart attacks about what they had done recently. The researchers concluded that firing someone or having a high-stakes deadline doubled the usual risk of a heart attack during the following week.

Only two study participants had been recently fired, too few to suggest whether this too may trigger heart attacks although Mittleman believes it probably does.

"The question is, what do we do about this?" Mittleman said.

The best advice, he said, is to get exercise, watch your weight, cholesterol and blood pressure, and to not smoke.

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