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Bad Boss Can Cause Heart Attack

Bad Boss Can Cause Heart Attack

Stephen Smith / Boston Globe

November 25, 2008

Sick and tired of your lousy boss?

It’s more than a mere irritation. It could kill you.

Swedish researchers report today that workers saddled for four years with managers who were inconsiderate, opaque, uncommunicative, and poor advocates were about 60 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack or other life-threatening cardiac condition. By contrast, employees whose managers exhibited robust leadership skills were roughly 40 percent less likely to suffer heart emergencies.

And the boss effect appeared to trump other considerations, including workload and whether the employee smoked, exercised, or had weight problems, researchers found.

The study, which tracked more than 3,100 Swedish men for the better part of a decade, adds to an expanding body of research showing that what happens on the job doesn’t stay on the job. It can, instead, potentially wreak havoc deep in our arteries, with blood pressure soaring and stress-spawned hormones surging.

“For all of those who work under managers who they perceive behave strangely, or in any way they don’t understand, and they feel stressed, the study confirms this might actually be a health risk,” said Anna Nyberg, a psychologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and lead author of the study appearing in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. “And they should take it seriously.”

A Boston cardiologist, Dr. Christopher Cannon of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said he found the study so persuasive – and disturbing – that he planned immediately to begin quizzing his patients more extensively about their on-the-job experiences.

“Now, we’ll ask what is your job like? Are you happy in your job? Is your boss difficult to work with?” Cannon said. “I guess Dilbert would fit in here. Dilbert’s looking at an early heart attack, given that he has very little control over his life and doesn’t seem to have a very nice boss.”

The findings about the dangers of bad bosses emerged, appropriately enough, from a study that goes by the acronym WOLF. It stands for Work, Lipids, and Fibrinogen Stockholm study.

Starting in 1992, workers between the ages of 19 and retirement were screened, with information about medical history gathered and standard cardiovascular tests such as blood pressure and cholesterol readings performed.

The workers, who tended to be better educated and have slightly better access to healthcare than the typical Swede, were also asked to evaluate their bosses’ behavior, responding to statements such as “My boss is good at pushing through and carrying out changes,” “I have a clear picture of what my boss expects of me,” and “I have sufficient power in relation to my responsibilities.”

Over the next decade, the total number of heart attacks, unstable angina, and other serious cardiac emergencies was not alarmingly high: There were 74 such episodes.

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