The Invisible Killer at Work – Discrimination Can Have Major Heart Health Implications

Workplace Discrimination

According to a recent study, U.S. adults who experienced high levels of discrimination in their workplaces were found to have a higher risk of developing high blood pressure compared to those who reported lower levels of discrimination. These findings emphasize the need for government and employer interventions, as well as anti-discrimination policies, to address and eliminate workplace discrimination effectively.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association has revealed that on-the-job discrimination can have a negative impact on heart health, which can have major implications. 

New research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association reveals that U.S. adults who felt discriminated against in the workplace were at an increased risk of developing high blood pressure compared to those who experienced less discrimination at work.

High blood pressure, a condition affecting nearly half of U.S. adults, is a key contributor to cardiovascular disease, the primary cause of death in the United States, according to 2023 American Heart Association statistics. The study authors highlight the escalating worries concerning the health effects of systemic racism and discrimination on cardiovascular diseases and other health conditions.

“Scientists have studied the associations among systemic racism, discrimination, and health consequences. However, few studies have looked specifically at the health impact of discrimination in the workplace, where adults, on average, spend more than one-third of their time,” said lead study author Jian Li, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of work and health in the Fielding School of Public Health and the School of Nursing at the University of California, Los Angeles. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first scientific evidence indicating workplace discrimination may increase people’s long-term risk of developing high blood pressure.”

Researchers for this study and others have defined workplace discrimination as unfair conditions or unpleasant treatment at work because of personal characteristics, particularly race, sex, or age.

Li and colleagues analyzed information from the Midlife in the United States Study (MIDUS), which reviewed a national sample of U.S. adults across a broad range of occupations and education levels. 1,246 adults who were free of high blood pressure at the start of the study, between 2004-2006 (baseline), were followed for about 8 years, until 2013-2014.

The participants were mostly white, and about half were women. About 1/3 of the participants were in each of the following age groups: younger than age 45; ages 46-55; or 56 and older.

At the start of the study, most participants self-reported they were non-smokers; had no to moderate alcohol consumption (low to moderate drinking = up to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women; heavy drinking = more than moderate drinking); and engaged in moderate-to-high physical exercise (low = never; moderate = once a week to once a month; high = several times a week) at the start of the study.

To assess discrimination at work, participants answered survey questions about their workplace experiences, such as whether they felt they were unfairly treated, watched more closely than others, or ignored more often than others.

The survey also asked about the frequency of ethnic, racial, or sexual slurs or jokes at work, as well as if respondents felt job promotions were given fairly.

Researchers calculated discrimination scores based on the participant’s responses to the survey, and participants were then divided into three groups based on perceived discrimination scores: low (score 6-7), intermediate (score 8-11), or high (score 12-30). All items and responses were weighted equally.

The analysis found:

  • Of the 1,246 people in the study, 319 reported developing high blood pressure after approximately eight years of follow-up (blood pressure was noted twice: at the start of the study and during the follow-up period).
  • Compared to people who scored low workplace discrimination at the beginning of the study, participants with intermediate workplace discrimination exposure scores were 22% more likely to report high blood pressure during the follow-up.
  • Compared to people who scored low workplace discrimination at enrollment in the study, participants with high workplace discrimination exposure scores were 54% more likely to report high blood pressure during the follow-up.

“There are several implications from these findings,” Li said. “First, we should increase public awareness that work is an important social determinant of health. Second, in addition to traditional risk factors, stressful experiences at work due to discrimination are an emerging risk factor for high blood pressure.”

Possible solutions to eliminate workplace discrimination include organizational policies and interventions. These potential approaches, when used in tandem with stronger anti-discrimination employer policies may improve workers’ coping skills, according to the research authors.

Some limitations of this study include that participants who did not take part in the follow-up session were more likely to be non-white, have lower education levels, work in positions with lower job control, and, unfortunately, they were found to have higher hypertension prevalence.

In addition, high blood pressure was self-reported as doctor-diagnosed via survey. A future study with medical examinations to measure diastolic blood pressure and systolic blood pressure may improve the validity of the research findings.

Furthermore, the measure of workplace discrimination in the MIDUS was generic, and a future study could explore specific, different types of workplace discrimination, such as racial-, sex- or age-related discrimination at work.

“This study adds to the growing body of science finding that discrimination of any kind may significantly increase the risk of cardiovascular disease including high blood pressure. It also underscores the importance of the American Heart Association’s commitment to addressing health equity in the workplace and among the workforce to improve individual health,” said Eduardo Sanchez, M.D., M.P.H., FAHA, FAAFP, the American Heart Association’s chief medical officer for prevention.

Dr. Sanchez was not involved in this study. “As part of the Association’s overarching work to break down barriers to health equity and improve the health of all Americans, we are building strong collaborations that will drive real change in the workplace.”

Sanchez outlined several ways the Association is working toward meeting those commitments, including the release of the American Heart Association CEO Roundtable report, “Driving Health Equity in the Workplace,” and the recently launched Health Equity in the Workforce initiative with the Deloitte Health Equity Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management Foundation.

Reference: “Workplace Discrimination and Risk of Hypertension: Findings From a Prospective Cohort Study in the United States” by Jian Li, Timothy A. Matthews, Thomas Clausen and Reiner Rugulies, 26 April 2023, Journal of the American Heart Association.
DOI: 10.1161/JAHA.122.027374

The study was funded by the Targeted Research Training Program of the Southern California National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Education and Research Center, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the University of California, Los Angeles.

3 Comments on "The Invisible Killer at Work – Discrimination Can Have Major Heart Health Implications"

  1. People are so soft these days. We need padded rooms instead of break rooms

  2. Plesint Lee Serpryzid | July 5, 2023 at 11:54 pm | Reply

    It is heartening to read an article with evidence against the usual narrative. The spread of overt institutionally racist policies in the workplace has led to constant discrimination against employees and customers alike. Race has somehow become the single biggest corporate concern, and discrimination their first intent. This sample of “participants were mostly white, and about half were women”, and the effects of moderate discrimination against them correlated to a 22% increase in high blood pressure, and high discrimination to 54%. It’s brave of the American Heart Association to publish findings they may be cancelled for.

    Self-reported high blood pressure statistics will not be as reliable as they should be. Many people won’t understand the meaning, or will make assumptions, or have been given silly new guidelines requiring less than 117/76 their whole lives. The authors even noted this problem, which is excellent. I’d also like to see a control sample, and a stronger correlation, excluding more confounding variables than tobacco/alcohol, while including ones more directly correlated such as weight or exercise. Ethnicity also plays a part in cardiac health, with inheritable genetic tendencies to higher risk. But mainly, it’s extremely hard to accurately quantify unfair treatment by survey of feelings, so the study could be improved by relying on an objective analysis of overt institutional racist racial preference & dispreference policies, such as hiring quotas, double-standards, censorship, and requiring ideological indoctrination.

  3. Look like you mix up stress and discrimination….one can be co used by another, of cause. Generally study was not very scientific and miss a lot of explanation in the first place…so this is not a proper experiment, but reason behind is clear, stress and emotional factor, which has being acknowledge many times long ago

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