Mistrust in the workplace increases employees’ odds of CVD

Employees who work in what they consider a closed-off and untrusting environment are more likely to develop CVD risk factors like elevated blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes than those who feel their bosses support them, according to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Senior health scientist Toni Alterman, PhD, of the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and colleagues’ review of data from the 2010-2012 Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index further confirmed what researchers have been suggesting for years now: individuals’ work environments and relationships with their higher-ups can weigh heavily on their overall health.

“In the past, literature on associations between social capital and health focused mainly on community, residential or geographic areas,” Alterman et al. wrote in the journal. “More recently, workplaces have been seen as important social units where social capital may promote wellbeing and health and as providing a means of understanding relationships in the workplace. A number of hypotheses as to how social capital may act on health behaviors have been proposed; these include providing norms and attitudes that influence health behaviors and psychosocial mechanisms that promote emotional support and enhance self-esteem.”

The team zoned in on the idea of social capital—a measure of people’s relationships, relational networks, levels of trust and levels of collaborative activity—for their study, focusing largely on the intersection of workplace trust and the American Heart Association’s “Life’s Simple 7” (LS7) measures of CV health. They drew nationally representative Gallup data for 412,884 participants from the Well-Being Index, a telephone survey of U.S. workers that recently started including questions about people’s work environments.

Upon analysis, Alterman and co-authors reported around 22% of women and 20.3% of men indicated in the Gallup poll that their supervisor “did not always create an open and trusting environment.” The highest prevalence of mistrust was reported among employees aged 45-64, then among those aged 30-44. Black women and white women reported most often that they struggled with workplace trust.

Trust was linked to all LS7 measures, including tobacco cessation, physical activity, healthy diet and ideal BMI, fasting glucose, cholesterol and blood pressure, in both men and women. Alterman et al. found that workers who felt their work environments weren’t open or trusting had greater odds of:

  • Having high blood pressure (15% of women; 20% of men)
  • Having high cholesterol (18% of women; 22% of men)
  • Developing diabetes (15% of women; 18% of men)
  • Sticking to a poor diet (10% of women; 11% of men)
  • Being a current smoker (15% of women and men)

The authors said odds ratios for having four or more LS7 CVD risk factors were elevated for those working in a mistrustful environment, and prevalence of such an environment was higher among women with a college or postgraduate degree, divorced employees and men with some technical or college training.

“The findings of this study suggest that lower workplace social capital, as measured by the Well-Being Index, is associated with higher odds of having one or more of the LS7 CVD risk factors,” Alterman and colleagues wrote. “Our findings are consistent with others who have found associations between social capital and health.”

The team said even subtle modifications to work environments, like installing sit/stand desk stations or walking workstations, could reduce sedentary behavior, encouraging better physical health among workers. Increased access to nutritious foods could improve employees’ diets.

“Improvements to the work environment are needed to reduce CVD risk among workers,” the authors said. “Social modification to the work environment, such as adjusting managerial style to create an open and trusting environment, can decrease work stress. Efforts can also be made to target the health behaviors themselves.”