Heart disease and stroke affect millions of Canadians each year, with one person in Canada dying every five minutes from heart conditions, stroke, or vascular cognitive impairment. While heart disease is associated with a variety of risk factors, such as diet, physical activity levels, and smoking, many people underestimate the impact of short- and long-term stress on their heart health. Sudden, intense stress increases the short-term risk of a heart attack, but long-term, chronic stress has also been associated with heart disease.1

Throughout the pandemic, more Canadians have found themselves dealing with unprecedented levels of stress, along with new challenges that they have not encountered before. More Canadians are grappling with severe stress each day, and employers need to be aware of the long-term impact of stress on employees—including the elevated risk for heart disease. As Canada’s second leading cause of death, it’s essential to address stress through prevention to help us lead healthier lives.

Below, we take a closer look at the relationship between heart health and stress and offer suggestions on how to help your employees manage the effects of stress.

The physiological effects of stress

Each person experiences some degree of stress in their everyday lives, but for many, stress can become unmanageable and lead to damaging effects on the body. Nearly one-quarter of Canadians report a high degree of life stress.2

Though we often think of stress as occurring in our minds, our minds and bodies are connected, and stress has tangible effects on the heart. When stress becomes chronic, the brain releases more cortisol, increasing our cholesterol and blood pressure if levels are consistently high. Stress causes the heart to work harder, while also raising the levels of fats and sugars in the blood; in turn, these effects can increase the risk of blood clots and heart disease.

Aside from the direct physiological impact on the body, stress can also be responsible for unhealthy behavioural coping mechanisms, such as using substances or consuming unhealthy foods.3 Responding to stress with anger, which can be expected, may also increase heart rate and blood pressure while sustaining the experience of stress, creating a vicious cycle.

The impact of COVID-19 on stress

In the Canadian Social Survey: COVID-19 and Well-Being (CSS-CW), conducted between April and September 2021, 29% of Canadians aged 25 to 34, 36% of those aged 35 to 44, and 30% of those aged 45 to 54 indicated they found most days quite stressful or extremely stressful. Additionally, the Mental Health Commission reported that three out of five Canadian workers are experiencing burnout, with 82% of Canadians reporting significant daily stress.

It’s clear that rapidly shifting public health guidelines, concerns over contracting COVID-19, and changes in work environments have all caused immense stress for Canadians regardless of age. Without adequate resources and coping skills, they may find themselves struggling to stay afloat. To alleviate the long-term health consequences of the pandemic, employees and employers alike can work together to create a supportive environment that encourages and supports resiliency.

How employers can help

While it’s impossible to eliminate every source of stress, employers can prioritize employee well-being by making a concerted effort to reduce unnecessary stress and provide resources to help employees develop healthy coping skills.

Workplace wellness tactics can include4:

  • Offering programs that address the sources of stress by surveying employees to discover the root causes (e.g., safety, ergonomics, job demands, etc.)
  • Discussing stress prevention and the importance of mental health in your company policies
  • Providing employees with the training, skills, and resources to be effective in their roles
  • Ensuring balanced workloads with reasonable deadlines, hours of work, and clear duties
  • Offering an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
  • Keeping employees informed on major company developments and allowing them to provide feedback
  • Listening, acknowledging, and responding to employee concerns about work overload, illness, conflict, and other potential sources of stress
  • Celebrating your employees’ achievements, especially when they do more than is expected of them; a lack of recognition can create resentment and decrease employee motivation
  • Improving work-life balance by respecting time off and encouraging a healthy balance between home and work5
  • Combatting “Zoom fatigue” by giving employees the option to keep their cameras off during meetings, starting meetings with a moment of mindfulness so that employees can catch their breath on busy days, and consider having a “Zoom-free” day of the week to give employees a break
  • Introducing a wellness tool or app, such as Sprout at Work, that encourages, gamifies, and rewards healthy habits

When employers invest in helping their employees reduce stress, they support both physical and mental health. As studies continue to uncover the long-term impacts of COVID-19 stress, employers will find that decreasing stress for employees ultimately makes a positive, holistic impact on overall health, reducing the risk of heart disease.

Making stress prevention fun

Many employers choose to tackle employee stress using a multi-pronged approach. Wellness tools can be a valuable supplement to a benefits plan, from mental health resources to physical activity challenges; tools that allow employees to set goals can often help them develop proactive habits that dispel stress.

To learn more about developing a strategic well-being program to support your employees’ stress and heart health, contact a Cowan consultant today.

1, 2 Recognizing and Managing Stress. Heart & Stroke Foundation. Retrieved from URL.
3 Stress Basics. (2020). Heart & Stroke. Retrieved from URL.
4 Workplace Stress. Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. Retrieved from URL.
5 Reducing Stress in the Workplace: What Employers Can Do. Electrical Industry News. Retrieved from URL.