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Dear Doctors: My husband’s office went remote during the pandemic. He used to ride his bike to work and walk at lunch. Now, he’s at his desk from when he gets up until bedtime. I read that working long work hours can give you high blood pressure. If that’s true, maybe he’ll slow down.
Dear Reader: Making the switch from the structured rhythm of an office environment to working from home can be a challenge. Employees often feel pressure to prove their productivity, so they wind up putting in extra hours. The pandemic is also causing staff numbers to shrink, so many workers are seeing their workloads expand.
Unfortunately, these changes can take a toll on employees’ health. Research has shown that people who put in long work hours can be at higher risk of developing high blood pressure than those who work shorter hours.
In a study published three years ago in Hypertension, the journal of the American Heart Association, researchers looked at blood pressure in 3,500 office workers from three insurance companies in Canada. They collected data during three different periods over the course of five years. Each person’s resting blood pressure was measured in the morning in a clinical setting that was designed to resemble a doctor’s office. The employees were then outfitted with portable blood pressure monitors that they wore throughout their workdays. The devices checked their blood pressure every 15 minutes, and gave a minimum of 20 readings each day.
The study’s authors set readings at or above 135/85 as the benchmark for high blood pressure. At the end of the five-year study, the data showed that when someone worked 49 or more hours per week, their risk of developing sustained hypertension increased by 66%. Employees who worked 41 to 48 hours per week were 33% more likely to have sustained high blood pressure than were their colleagues who worked fewer hours. This proved to be true for both the male and the female employees.
The researchers were also interested in something known as “masked hypertension.” This is a phenomenon where someone’s blood pressure reading is within the normal range when it is being checked at the doctor’s office but is otherwise high. The AHA study found that extended work hours increased the employees’ risk of developing masked hypertension by 70%. Even after accounting for additional risk factors such as weight, body mass index, smoking, age, gender, activity levels and stress, long work hours proved a significant factor in developing hypertension.
Although the study wasn’t designed to explain why this would be the case, the researchers have some ideas. One is that when you’re working long hours, you’re not getting enough sleep, which itself has been shown to increase cardiovascular risk. Extended sitting has also been linked to high blood pressure. The flip side of that is when you spend so much time sitting each day, you’re not getting enough — or sometimes any — exercise. Encourage your husband to balance his long hours with daily exercise, hourly breaks and better sleep hygiene.