Bulletproofing your Heart: The Dangers of Chronic Stress in the Workplace


Marissa Badgley, Founder and CEO of Reloveution (40 years old)
Ranjan Das, CEO of SAP India (42 years old)
Rudratej Singh, CEO of BMW Group India (46 years old)
Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines (56 years old)
Charlie Bell, CEO of McDonalds (60 years old)
Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase (63 years old)

What do these people have in common? They worked hard and made it to the top of their profession as senior business executives. The next less obvious factor they have in common is one that is on the rise among senior business executives: heart disease.

Seventy-hour weeks, high levels of stress, poor diet, and inadequate physical activity — these are just some of lifestyle factors that high-level executives face, leading to a spike in cardiac ailments. In India, a massive 46% of the workforce suffers from some form of stress. This survey of 200,000 employees from 30 large companies reported that the three main sources of stress in their lives were work, family, and health problems. Further, it found that the following factors played the most significant roles in overall well-being: sleep, anxiety, energy levels, and a healthy diet.

While many factors contributing to high stress and heart disease are within our control, the lifestyle and job requirements of most high-level executives usually means a tradeoff between adopting a healthy lifestyle and staying on top of business. In fact, it has been observed that because these individuals are usually able to push through difficult situations and come out on top, they have a stronger tendency to deny their symptoms and develop a sense of ‘invulnerability’. But when it comes to heart disease, everyone is vulnerable.

The eight most pervasive risk factors for heart disease include six that are within our control.   These are: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, being overweight, being physically inactive. The ones beyond our control are age and a family history of heart disease.

Passing the Stress Test:

A commonly discussed risk factor for business executives is high stress. Being stressed is the body’s natural reaction to unfamiliar situations. Our body responds by releasing chemicals which prepare you to combat difficult situations. As a result, during stressful situations, you may have felt your heart racing, your muscles tensing, your stomach doing somersaults, or your breathing getting faster. These responses would come in handy if we were in a situation that needed a ‘fight-or-flight’ response. But when facing modern-day stressors, these responses are counterproductive. For example, the tensing of our muscles may help us jump out of the way of an approaching car but will not be of any use while stuck in traffic.

In addition to wreaking havoc on our concentration levels, mood, appetite, and sleep cycles, chronic stress can lead to long-term cardiovascular damage. Chronic stress has been linked to the increased incidence of coronary heart disease, stroke, and heart attacks. The chemicals released in response to long-term stress can cause inflammation, which in turn can damage the walls of our arteries, lower our ‘good’ cholesterol levels, and increase our blood pressure. Look out for symptoms of chronic stress, which are generally disguised as insomnia, headaches or migraines, digestive issues, body pain, irritability, high blood pressure, or anxiety.

Chronic stress can also have indirect impacts on our cardiovascular health — to take the load off our shoulders, we may smoke the occasional cigarette, have an extra peg or two when drinking over the weekend, or seek comfort in calorie-loaded foods like pizzas and cake. Unfortunately, overindulging in these seemingly ‘de-stressing’ behaviours do more harm than good for our heart and make us more susceptible to heart disease.  

Making your heart bulletproof:

Life is unpredictable and many of us will experience unavoidable trials, all of which can be major sources of stress. But it is important to ensure that this stress does not consume your life and adversely affect your cardiovascular health. Chronic stress can take a toll on your personal relationships with your loved ones and your quality of life. In addition to engaging in de-stressing activities like hobbies, meditation, and exercise, an underestimated strategy of stress management is talking and sharing your feelings with someone. Business executives should surround themselves with a support network that could include psychologists, personal trainers, or close family members that can help them cope with pressures of the job and stay at the top of their games.

It is important to remember that your loved ones do care about your state of mind and your overall well-being and are ready to sympathize with your situations, so opening up and verbalizing your feelings of stress to them can be greatly beneficial. Research studies have even demonstrated the positive impacts of open communication on your health, immune system, and response to future stressful situations.

If you are a high-level executive, or if you are someone dealing with chronic stress, we urge you to not wait for a crisis to force you to make the decision to change. Remember — you can reverse your risk of heart disease and make changes today that will impact your health in the future. It’s never too late.

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AliveCor, recognized as a Tech Pioneer by the World Economic Forum, is transforming cardiology by delivering AI-based, personalized heart care solutions. Our FDA-cleared machine learning techniques are recommended by doctors around the world.