A new study that provides a snapshot of a typical American workplace observed that chronic job stress and lack of physical activity are strongly associated with being overweight or obese.
Unexpectedly, researchers also found that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables did little to offset the effect of chronic job stress on weight gain among the employees, who were mostly sedentary. Instead, exercise seemed to be the key to managing stress and keeping a healthy weight.
University of Rochester Medical Center researchers conducted the study of 2,782 employees at a large manufacturing facility in upstate New York, but the results could be applicable to almost any job situation in which layoffs, or lack of control at work, is a major concern.
The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine published the research in January 2010.
Lead 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. It's time to improve corporate policies that better protect the health of workers, she said.
In a poor economy, companies should take care of the people who survive layoffs and end up staying in stressful jobs, Fernandez said. 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.
Over and over, Fernandez's team heard the same story from the upstate workers: After spending the day sitting in stressful meetings or at their computers, they looked forward to going home and vegging out in front of the TV. Anecdotally, researchers also discovered that when pink slips were circulating, the snacks highest in fats and calories would disappear quickest from the vending machines. Some workers said they did not take the time to eat well or exercise at lunch because they were fearful of repercussions from leaving their desks for too long.
Approximately 32 percent of adult men and 35 percent of adult women are obese in this country. When the prevalence of overweight and obesity are combined, 68 percent of adults fit the category (72 percent prevalence among men; 64 percent among women), according to a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
In their study they found that 72 to 75 percent of the employees were overweight or obese. Most of the study volunteers were middle-aged, white, married, highly educated (college degree or more), relatively well-paid (earning more than $60,000 a year), with an average of almost 22 years at the company.
Another important statistic: More than 65 percent of the employees said they watched two or more hours of television per day. Among those who reported watching two to three hours, 77 percent were more likely to be overweight or obese, and those who watched four or more hours of TV a day increased their odds of obesity by 150 percent, compared to people who watched less than two hours of daily TV.
Stressful working conditions are known to impact health behaviors directly and indirectly. Directly, stress can affect the neuroendocrine system, resulting in abdominal fat, for example, or it may cause a decrease in sex hormones, which often leads to weight gain. Indirectly stress is linked to the consumptions of too many fatty or sugary foods and inactivity.
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.