Work Stresses, Bad Bosses, and Heart Attacks

“In 2007, nearly 80 million Americans—one out of every three adults—had some type of cardiovascular disease (CVD)…[In fact,] CVD has been the leading killer of U.S. adults in every year since 1900, with the exception of 1918, when a pandemic flu killed more people” (Donatelle, 2009, p. 347).

Robert Sutton in his new book “Good Boss, Bad Boss” located a Swedish study which tracked 3,122 men for 10 years. The study found that those with the best bosses suffered fewer heart attacks than those with bad bosses. Another researcher discovered that no matter what the occupation, roughly 75% of the workforce listed their immediate supervisor/boss as the most stressful part of their job (Sutton, 2010).

Landy & Conte (2010), citing studies by Fox, Dwyer, & Ganster; Cohen & Herbert; Krantz & McCeney) state that work environments that are stressful are linked to increases in cortisol (a stress hormone). Furthermore, long-term, elevated levels of stress hormones (like cortisol) lead to decreased functioning of the immune system and heart disease. Cortisol is released as our bodies adjust to chronic stress, and stays in the bloodstream longer because of slower metabolic responses. If the stress remains unresolved, cortisol can reduce the body’s ability to fight off diseases and illnesses (Donatelle, 2009).

“The largest epidemiological study to date, the INTERHEART Study with almost 30,000 participants in 52 countries, identified stress as one of the key modifiable risk factors for heart attack. Similarly, the National Health Interview Study, conducted annually by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics, has reported that stress accounts for approximately 30 percent of the attributable risk of myocardial infarction (heart attack)” (Donatelle, 2009, p. 65).

Bottom Line: 75% of the workforce say their immediate boss is the most stressful part of their job (Sutton, 2010). Stress-filled jobs usually mean working for “bad bosses.” As statistics (on stress and heart attacks) indicate, and as Sutton (Aug. 2010) explains, “Lousy bosses can kill you—literally.”


Donatelle, R. (2009). Health: The basics (8th ed.). San Francisco: Pearson Benjamin Cummings.

Landy, F. J. & Conte, J. M. (2010). Work in the 21st Century: An Introduction to Industrial and Organizational Psychology (3rd Ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Sutton, R.I. (2010). Good boss, bad boss: How to be the best… and learn from the worst. New York: Business Plus.

Sutton, R.I. (August 2010). Why good bosses tune in to their people. McKinsey Quarterly. Retrieved from