U. ROCHESTER (US)—The sedentary, stressful conditions of the typical American workplace often lead to weight gain, and even obesity, according to a new study.
Researchers found that exercise seems to be key to managing stress and keeping a healthy weight. Findings were reported in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
“In a poor economy, companies should take care of the people who survive layoffs and end up staying in stressful jobs,” says Diana Fernandez, an epidemiologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
“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.”
Fernandez says it’s time to improve corporate policies that better protect the health of workers. Her study is among many that associate high job pressure with cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, depression, exhaustion, anxiety, and weight gain.
Researchers conducted the study of 2,782 employees at a large manufacturing facility in upstate New York, but Fernandez says the results could be applicable to almost any job situation in which layoffs, or lack of control at work, is a major concern.
After spending the day sitting in stressful meetings or at their computers, workers said they looked forward to going home and “vegging out” in front of the TV.
Also, when pink slips were circulating, the snacks highest in fats and calories would disappear most quickly 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 the United States. 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.
The studied workplace mirrored the national statistics. Researchers collected baseline data from the nearly 2,800 employees, using body mass index (BMI) as the measurement for weight status. Overweight/obesity was defined as BMI greater than 24.9, and healthy/underweight was defined as less than 24.9.
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.
“We are not sure why TV is so closely associated with being overweight in our sample group of people,” Fernandez says. “Other studies have shown that adults tend to eat more fatty foods while watching TV. But this requires more investigation.”
The company that agreed to participate was involved in drastic restructuring and layoffs. Employees said they were “stress eating” and burned out from “doing the work of five people.”
Psychosocial work conditions were measured through a detailed job questionnaire. Interventions were planned and employees who worked at intervention worksites 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, Fernandez says.
However, while analyzing baseline data investigators discovered that employees working in the most high-job-strain conditions had almost one BMI unit more of weight than people who worked in more passive areas.
Researchers did not find that chronic stressors (general dissatisfaction at work) and acute stressors (being a layoff survivor, or having entire operations decommissioned) together had a larger effect on weight than when examined independently.
Diet was evaluated solely by the number of servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and probably had no influence on weight status because assessing diet in this way might not be a good measurement of quality or quantity, Fernandez says. A better way to look at diet quality might be through an evaluation of the whole diet, she concludes.
University of Rochester health news: www.urmc.rochester.edu/news/