Work from home-related stress: Is your heart skipping a beat?

September 27, 2020 4:30 AM

Pandemic-induced stress along with unhealthy eating habits due to WFH are proving detrimental for heart patients. With World Heart Day round the corner, we take a look at what one can do for a healthy heart.

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By Reya Mehrotra

With work from home becoming the new constant, the hustle and bustle of life might have slowed down thanks to zero traffic and commute hours, but WFH stress seems to have become the new elephant in the room that many are living with. A study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in August revealed that those who suffered a severe heart attack were more than twice as likely to die from it during the pandemic in the US as compared to previous years as hospitalisations and checkups began to decline February onwards. Coupled with anxiety and unhealthy eating, this could be a disaster situation. With World Heart Day round the corner (September 29), we take a look at the problem and its solution.

A stressful year
Cardiologists believe that adapting to a new way of life has taken a toll on people’s mental and physical health. Post the pandemic, there has been an upsurge in the number of patients dealing with stress disorders while enduring Covid, says Viveka Kumar, principal director and chief, Cath Labs (Pan Max), Cardiac Sciences, Max Hospital, Delhi. “The age bracket of 35-60 years has been hit the most. A country where one in four deaths is attributed to cardiovascular disease (CVD) burden, Covid-19 has brought with it many challenges for heart patients. Higher levels of stress, especially this year because of job losses, collapsing businesses, etc, is an added risk,” he says.

Kumar shares that stress leads to obesity in many cases and that increases the chance of heart diseases due to high blood cholesterol and blood pressure, and unhealthy levels of blood glucose, which can clog arteries. This can raise the risk of blockages, leading to heart attack. Symptoms like shortness of breath, chest pain, cold sweat and lightheadedness could be hinting at blocked arteries or coronary artery disease (CAD).

Working from home while dealing with household chores and children has taken a toll especially on women. In September, the 10th edition of the LinkedIn Workforce Confidence Index (India), which gauges the hopes, anxieties and attitudes of the workforce, revealed that nearly 50% of India’s working women are more stressed out due to working from home amid the pandemic, as it’s taking a toll on their emotional well-being. Around 38% of working men were found out to be stressed out about working from home. The survey was conducted between July 27 and August 23 among more than 2,200 working professionals. Though the stress levels while working from home for men might be lower as compared to women, they are twice as likely to have heart attacks as women, according to a 2016 research published in the Harvard Heart Letter by Harvard Medical School.

There could be long-term impacts of the stress induced this year, believes Delhi-based TS Kler, chairman, PSRI Heart Institute, and adviser, SeekMed, a telemedicine platform. “The pandemic has forced all of us to embrace a new reality. Businesses have been challenged… there is an additional burden on the workforce… people are confined indoors with limited mobility and restricted movement. This is not a good scenario for maintaining a healthy heart. Job-related stress is very personal in nature and people react differently to stress. Short-term side effects of stress could lead to headaches, anxiety, upset stomach or lack of sleep. However, long-term constant stress can result in heart disease, back pain, depression and a weakened immune system,” he says. According to Kler, young adults, coping with work uncertainties and those away from their families, are the most vulnerable.

The most common and popular way to beat stress is unhealthy bingeing and that was evident from the sales of FMCG products this year. In May this year, Nestlé India said that the company in the January-March quarter recorded the best quarterly sales growth in almost five years globally for the firm, as consumers stocked up on packaged food products. Demand for items like Maggi Noodles, coffee, Milkmaid condensed milk, KitKat and Munch chocolates surged during this period.

Doctors believe that these unhealthy and packaged snacks can be replaced with healthier ones, while the stress can be dealt with with subtle lifestyle changes. “It is imperative to take the right steps like healthy eating and exercising, and get your blood pressure and cholesterol checked regularly. Exercising improves blood circulation and strengthens the heart. Yoga, meditation, listening to music and focusing on something peaceful and calm can help in managing stress, which is a major cause of high blood pressure and can trigger a heart attack,” says Kumar.

Healthy working
Not only stress and unhealthy snacking, but habits like smoking and drinking are easy to fall prey to as well while working from home. Mukesh Goyal, senior consultant, cardiothoracic surgery, heart and lung transplant, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, Delhi, agrees that many have picked up habits like unhealthy snacking, smoking, drinking and working at odd hours while working from home and that the boundaries “have been blurred”. But the good news is that this can be altered. “The best way to maintain a daily schedule is to work according to office hours strictly and not exceed it. One should avoid excessive tea and coffee… go for lemon water or fill a jar with water and put some mint leaves and then have it. Offices are usually no-smoking zones and have air conditioners, so one might not smoke as much as while working from home. They must strictly avoid that. Even drinks must be limited to not more than a drink per day, which is 50 ml of hard liquor or 100 ml of white or red wine. For exercises at home, there are so many apps nowadays. One can even take a 5-to 10-minute walk every hour instead of sitting at a stretch.

Sharing the burden of home chores and parenting can also, in fact, be treated as exercise. “Household chores could be looked at as opportunities to reconnect with family. Even a good laugh with loved ones can do wonders in maintaining a healthy heart. Walking from one room to the other, morning walk and cycling are good options too. For those in IT or similar professions involving a lot of screen time, it always helps to disconnect at regular intervals, take a short walk, stretch, drink water or green tea and have a quick family chat before getting back to work,” says Kler.

Tips for healthier work from home

– Manage your time well and prioritise tasks. Let go of less important activities
– Take mini breaks at regular intervals and stretch
– Don’t skip meals and fix a time for them
– Eat healthy and exercise regularly
– Do not overwork yourself
– Socialise keeping in mind social distancing
– Call at least five elderly people you know who may need mental support
– Be positive
– Get help from an expert doctor when in need
– Eat fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean poultry and fish, and avoid saturated fats, trans fats, and excess sodium and sugar
– Work out for 30 minutes before or after office hours
– Prioritise sleep
– Limit alcohol consumption to not more than a glass a day
– Avoid smoking

Healthy snacking for the heart

– Roasted peanuts without butter or salt
– Non-buttered, non-salted popcorn
– Organic vegetable soup, salad, spouts
– Lemon water or water induced with mint leaves
– Corn chaat
– Dry fruits
– Fruit salad instead of desserts
– Lots of water

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