The longer hours, faster pace and security typical of many new jobs are taking a toll on workers' hearts, according to a growing body of occupational health research.
Studies in Europe, Japan and the United States have linked increases in cardiovascular risks and disease to a global push for greater productivity. Researchers say the damage is cumulative and will become more apparent and costly over time.
"I think we're dramatically underestimating the impacts of these changes," said Peter Schnall, an epidemiologist and clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, Irvine's School of Medicine. "There are enormous health effects, but they don't make it into the calculations."
The latest research in the field, presented this month at an international forum in Newport Beach, Calif., hints at the potential scale of the problem.
U.S. and Japanese workers who put in more than 50 hours a week had markedly higher rates of hypertension, a precursor to heart disease. In Belgium, stressful jobs -- defined as highly demanding with little decision-making authority -- appeared to elevate the blood pressure of workers even as they slept.
China's embrace of rapid economic change has been accompanied by surges in cardiovascular disease that have overwhelmed urban hospitals. And in one small Norwegian town two years ago, the mere rumor of a plant closure was enough to raise overall blood pressure for months.
"Just think about globalization, what that can mean to millions of people around the world. These rumors are everywhere," said Tage Kristensen, who directs Denmark's occupational health program and is considered a pioneer in the burgeoning area of research.
The link being made between shifting corporate employment practices and heart disease reflects a larger interest in the health effects of stress, which began showing up in occupational health journals in the early 1990s. In 1996, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health -- part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- named the changing nature of work a priority for study, seeking to catch up with European counterparts.
But nearly a decade later, after continuing painful shifts in global work arrangements, the answers remain frustratingly vague. "Clearly something is going on," said Steven Sauter, who coordinates research on work stress for NIOSH and who spoke at the forum in Newport Beach. "In the United States, we don't have the firm data we need to understand it."
Organized by the decade-old International Commission on Occupational Health, the forum was dominated by talk about the need for bigger, more imaginative research projects and for hard data on the long-term economic benefits of stress reduction. "You need numbers to show that your field is important," Kristensen said.