Men who have very little control over their work life are at an elevated risk of developing high blood pressure. But women, in a similar job situation, don't face the same health risk, according to a new Canadian study.
Men may be "hard-wired" to react in a particular way when they find themselves at the bottom of the job pyramid, speculated Dr. Cameron Mustard, who was part of the research team.
"I think the case could be made that male biology is more reactive to social environments ... involving dominance and hierarchy," he said. Simply put, the male who lacks job control is going to feel under a lot of emotional pressure and his body will respond by pumping out high levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. Previous research has shown that prolonged exposure to cortisol is associated with cardiovascular problems including hypertension. Left unchecked, high blood pressure can lead to heart attacks and strokes.
Those with lots of job control tend to a have a greater say in how they do their work.
The new study is a joint effort by two Toronto-based research bodies – the Institute for Work & Health and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences. The findings, published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, are based on 6,611 Ontario adults who were free of hypertension at the start of observation period.
After nine years, 27 per cent of the men who reported low job control had been diagnosed with high blood pressure. By contrast, only 18 per cent of those with high job control developed the condition. In fact, a lack of job control emerged as a bigger risk factor for male hypertension than smoking, alcohol consumption, physical inactivity or poor diet.
There was no link between job control and hypertension among females.
However, this doesn't mean women are immune to workplace pressure. It just seems to affect them differently. An earlier study by the same researchers found low job control was associated with an elevated risk of diabetes among women, but not men.
The researchers can't explain how poor job control might trigger diabetes in women. Could job stress cause some women to overeat, leading to weight gain which is a risk factor for diabetes? More research is needed to answer such a question, said Mustard.
"Our view is that we are not paying as much attention as we should to the way in which working environments can influence people's health."
The following approach was used to assess the participants in the study. They were asked to strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with these statements:
Your job requires you do things over and over.
Your job requires you to learn new things.
Your job requires a high level of skill.
Your job allows you freedom to decide how you do your job.
You have a lot of say about what happens in your job.
If you find yourself strongly agreeing with the first statement, and strongly disagreeing with the four other statements, then you have very little job control.
Mustard noted that some jobs give people far more say over their working conditions than others.
"Professions like law or medicine are occupations with a lot of job control," he noted. "But consider an urban bus driver," he added. "I think the skill level is moderately high – those are big buses. However, you don't have a lot of freedom to decide how you are going to do your job. You have to follow a certain route and you don't have a lot of say in what happens."