There’s a motto that many folks swear by at work — “Go along to get along” — and it suddenly looks like very bad advice. That’s because new research has found a link between suppressing workplace anger and increased risk for heart attack. In other words, holding anger inside at the office could literally kill you.
Though this research began more than a decade ago, it has become particularly relevant in our difficult economic times. Workers may feel uneasy about the consequences of disagreement or having a misunderstanding with a boss or colleague. People may experience more job-related pressures but also feel less appreciated. We’ve heard many disturbing accounts of disgruntled workers reacting violently when things aren’t going the way they want them to… yet as this study makes clear, it’s not healthy to hold in your feelings all the time either.
Mad Men at Work
Working with a group of 2,832 Swedish men, the researchers designed a questionnaire to quantify each participant’s typical style for handling angry feelings toward superiors or colleagues at work. A series of questions measured the likelihood that each participant would react “covertly” by suppressing his anger (walking away and taking some time to calm himself, but not taking up the issue again)… holding feelings inside and later developing physical symptoms such as a headache or stomachache… or venting his anger elsewhere. What they found is what makes gulping down your angry thoughts and words at work look very unwise. The more covert a participant’s style of handling workplace anger, the more likely he was to have had a heart attack in the period between 1992 (when the study began) and 2003 (when it ended).
What does this mean for heart health? The researchers found that those who tended to handle conflict with a superior or coworker by suppressing their anger without saying anything (just “letting it pass”) had double the risk for heart attack or cardiac death compared with those who never or seldom behaved this way… and for those who held their anger inside and suffered physical distress later, the risk was triple.
Note: Though this study examined only men, study coauthor Tores Theorell, MD, PhD, professor emeritus and scientific advisor at the Stress Research Institute at Stockholm University, said that covert coping is actually even more common among women. The study was reported in the November 2009 issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
OK — You’re Mad — What to Do?
The findings suggest that it’s unhealthy to suppress your emotions when you’re treated unfairly, say the researchers. But other research has shown that simply venting — expressing strong anger directly — actually can trigger a heart attack (although rarely), so this is not a healthy option either. I called a workplace-management consultant to ask about the healthiest ways to handle anger at work — both for your well-being and for your career.
“Blowing up or holding in anger can both lead to problems, and people who suppress their anger eventually blow up anyway,” I heard from Emil F. Coccaro, MD, professor of psychiatry and director of the clinical neuroscience and psychopharmacology research unit in the department of psychiatry at The University of Chicago. Dr. Coccaro said that the goal is not just to get through a situation but “to be calm inside and out and to not feel as if the world is out to get you.”
Take a Time-Out
The best and simplest strategy for handling anger at work is one any modern parent will recognize — a “time-out.” “Excuse yourself and go for a walk. After you’ve calmed down, you’re more likely to have a discussion that’s rational and produces a good resolution,” Dr. Coccaro said. “If you try to discuss the situation when you’re angry, you’ll say things you’ll regret… and also you won’t get what you want.”
Another cool-down strategy: Do some deep-breathing exercises, or try counting slowly to 10. Then, he suggests, you should mentally review the situation when you’ve calmed down. Consider whether your anger is justified — was what the person said or did really so bad? Could it be that you were just feeling irritable that day? Or perhaps you need to take some responsibility… did your own actions trigger something you hadn’t foreseen? It’s important to try to understand the situation more completely.
Everyone gets angry from time to time and sometimes with good reason. If you’re blowing up a few times a week, you may need to be evaluated for anger-management problems, Dr. Coccaro said. Treatment may involve talking with a therapist and sometimes even medication for a short while to help you learn to reframe your thinking about your interactions with others. Sometimes at least some of the problem lies within.