Job stress associated with overweight and obesity

A few years ago I wrote two pieces related to work-based stress and bodyweight:

Is your work weighing heavy on your body?

Balanced diets may improve work energy and productivity levels

In these posts I described how stress hormones can affect appetite, inflammation in the body and bodyweight and how watching blood sugar levels could be helpful.  I also mentioned specific foods that can help to keep blood glucose levels stable as well as long chain omega 3 fatty acids (found in oily fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel and sardines) and how these could be useful.

A recently published study (1) has found that chronic job stress, coupled with lack of physical activity, is strongly associated with being overweight or obese.  The study also found that exercise seemed to be highly important in managing stress and keeping a healthy weight. The study authors looked at workplace stress (job strain and job insecurity) and weight status in over 2,700 employees.  The authors conclude that workbased wellness programmes should target health enhancing behaviours to minimise the health effects of work conditions/work stress

Although the study took place in New York the results can be considered relevant to almost any job situation which is stressful and where redundancies are a concern.  In a press release (2) the lead study author, Diana Fernandez, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., an epidemiologist at the URMC Department of Community and Preventive Medicine, said her study is among many that associate high job pressure with cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, depression, exhaustion, anxiety and weight gain. She also said that is was high time to improve corporate policies that better protect the health of workers “In a poor economy, companies should take care of the people who survive layoffs and end up staying in stressful jobs,” “It is important to focus on strengthening wellness programs to provide good nutrition, ways to deal with job demands, and more opportunities for physical activity that are built into the regular workday without penalty.

The study group heard from the participants that after a hard day of work, especially particularly stressful days with meetings and lots of computer time, that what workers looked forward to was to go home and do nothing in front of the TV.  Some of the workers that took part in the study also reported that they did not take time to eat well or to exercise at lunch time because they were worried about being seen to leave their desks for too long (2).  In interviews the employees confided to researchers that they were “stress eating” and burned out from “doing the work of five people,”(2).  Importantly more than 65% of the workers said that they watched two or more hours of television daily and among those who watched 2-3 hours 77% were more likely to be overweight or obese.  Those watching 4 or more hours of television increased their odds of obesity by 150% compared to those watching less than 2 hours daily.  Previous studies have linked TV time to overweight and obesity in adults as well as children.  The lead author said “We are not sure why TV is so closely associated with being overweight in our sample group of people,” “Other studies have shown that adults tend to eat more fatty foods while watching TV. But this requires more investigation.” (2).  It is probable that more high-calorie snack type foods are consumed in front of the TV.  It can be very easy to over-consume on snack foods such as crisps, biscuits, chocolates and processed convenience meals when sitting in front of the TV.

Stress at work can impact health behaviour in a direct and indirect way.  Stress is known to affect the neuroendocrine system – the brain-hormone system – which can have an impact on abdominal fat levels and can also be detrimental to sex hormones which can also impact weight.  Stress is also linked to the consumption of sugary foods, high-calorie foods lack of exercise and physical activity.  Stress has also been linked to lack of sleep, which in turn is linked to over-eating in some people.  For more information on help for insomnia please read my previous posts

The authors of this study (1) have also looked at workers that participated in a comprehensive, two-year nutrition and exercise program. This included walking routes at work, portion control in food, and stress-reduction workshops. The data comparing control groups and the groups who took part in the nutrition and exercise program is still being analyzed I look forward to seeing those results when they are published.  In conclusion, the study suggests that workplace wellness programs should not only offer ideas on how to be healthy, but should examine the organizational structure and provide ways to minimize a stressful environment for everyone (2).

For more information and ideas on healthy eating during stressful times please visit the links at the start of this post and also browse the blog in general as there is plenty of information that you may find helpful.  In general I would suggest a healthy balanced diet that will keep blood sugar levels stable in conjunction with some form of daily exercise.  Even two 15minute walks could prove beneficial to feelings of stress (please read the two posts linked at the beginning of the post for more detail).

(1) Fernandez ID et al.  2010.  Association of Workplace Chronic and Acute Stressors With Employee Weight Status: Data From Worksites in Turmoil.  Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 52(1S):S34-S41

(2)Press release.  University of Rochester Medical Center (2010, March 25). Study connects workplace turmoil, stress and obesity. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 25, 2010, from­ /releases/2010/03/100324142133.htm

Written by Ani Kowal