Is Your Boss Killing You?

New research suggests that employees who see their bosses as unfair may be at significantly greater risk for heart disease. Here’s how to fight back.

If you’ve ever felt your heart skip a beat after being screamed at by your boss, it may be more than just your imagination.


A study of 6,000 British male office workers over a four-year period, published recently in the Archives of Internal Medicine, found that employees who felt their supervisors treated them fairly had a 30 percent lower risk of heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the industrialized world. Put another way, caustic, abrasive, and overbearing bosses just might be taking years off their employees’ lives.

Sure, we all feel on-the-job stress at one point or another, but even the most harried among us rarely address it as a potentially serious health problem. A recent study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, however, found that high stress levels or depression because of work run parallel to traditional risk factors like high cholesterol and smoking. For cardiologists, who don’t typically get mixed up in psychology, the study points to growing evidence that the head can have a lot to do with the heart. Consider a “killer boss” right at the top of the list of causes.

But not all hope is lost. According to doctors and other stress experts, lowering your health risks is as much about managing the rigors of your job as it is being blessed with a fair-and-just boss. You can’t change your boss’s stripes, but you can learn to handle the pressure and anxiety he or she induces.

Recognizing the problem, some hospitals have already developed programs to help people in high-stress jobs lead healthier lives. For example, the University of Michigan’s Cardiovascular Executive Health Program works with executives to address diet, exercise — and stress reduction. “A lot of executives have lifestyles that are conducive to developing heart disease,” says Dr. Melvyn Rubenfire, director of preventative cardiology at Michigan. “They have high stress, they’re traveling a lot, they’re eating on the road.”

The Michigan program conducts a thorough physical examination and makes recommendations about fitness and nutrition, but Rubenfire also places high importance on dealing with stress in the workplace. And even with all the sophisticated tests the program runs, some of the recommendations it makes on stress reduction are remarkably simple — applicable to managers and employees alike. “You get them to understand that you can relax just by closing your eyes,” Rubenfire says. “The program helps them understand” that they don’t need trips to a spa or a mountaintop resort to relax.

Rubenfire advises patients to employ simple techniques, like looking at pictures of their families, visualizing a beautiful vacation spot, or even trying to imagine a problematic situation as comical rather than stressful. “What we try to teach people is to recognize [stressful situations] before they happen,” he says. “They don’t wait until the crisis, but because they know what it means to be relaxed, they can feel the subtle changes before they get to too high a level of stress.”


Rubenfire is not surprised by the study’s findings on reduced risk of heart disease for workers who felt they had fair bosses. “It’s not that justice at work is the key, it’s how that interacts with job satisfaction,” he says. “It’s important in making you happy at work.” With Americans continuing to work some of the longest hours in the industrialized world, too many unhappy hours can take a toll.

Psychologist and executive coach Michael H. Kahn has studied the way workers manage stress and how it affects the way they do their jobs. He says he sees many companies — and employees — failing to understand that managing stress every day leads to a happier, healthier, more productive working environment. Managers would do well to take note. When companies don’t find ways for workers to reduce the small stresses of the workplace as they occur, he says, productivity falls.

And most of us don’t really know how to keep this buildup from boiling over. “People work, work, work, and then on the weekends or once a month, they do something to relieve their stress,” Kahn says. Workers are better off building small, five-minute breaks into their day, and learning how to anticipate and react to stressful situations.

“Even though it adds time on to the work day, you’re going back with better energies,” Kahn adds. “Think of what happens at a sporting event — they take time outs, they have quarters, halves. All of that allows the players to take a mental and physical break so that when they come back, they’re reenergized. But if you look at what goes on in business, it’s rare.”

In part because of domineering bosses, many workers have come to feel like they need to stay at their desks, instead of stepping away for a few minutes to refocus. Kahn says this leads workers to “keep trying to override those messages that you need to take a break. As the day progresses, it takes more energy to override those messages, and productivity goes down.??

So, the next time the big cheese calls you in for that meeting you’ve been dreading, or when worrying about tomorrow’s deadline is keeping you from finishing today’s project, slip in five extra minutes to step back, take a deep breath, and relax. Your heart — and very likely your employer — will end up thanking you.