How Job Stress Relates to Obesity

June 27, 2018

blog_workstressIn May 2018, unemployment dropped to 3.8%, the lowest rate in nearly 20 years. While it’s great that more Americans are working, more employment can mean higher work-related stress. There is evidence to show that this specific kind of stress can have a negative impact on your weight and consequently overall health. A 2012 study by the University of Cincinnati concluded that chronic stress, often caused by occupational and/or financial stress, is directly linked to obesity.

Let’s look at what causes this specific strain of stress and what you can do to lower your risks.

Why you should care about work-related stress

Clinical research shows that regardless of where chronic stress originates, it does terrible damage to your weight. For example, one 2017 study conducted by University College London explained that stress increases cortisol levels. Often called the stress hormone, cortisol controls how body fat is stored and helps control blood sugar. An increase of cortisol can lower metabolism and lead to an increase of abdominal fat, which is not only stubborn to remove, but is also very dangerous for heart health. In addition to obesity and weight gain, chronic stress can lead to other chronic conditions, such as heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

Why you should care specifically about work-related is stress is that you spend the majority of your waking hours on the job. According to the Chartered Management Institute, the average person spends 90,000 hours at work over their lifetime. The same group reported 25% of employees say work is their main source of stress and 40% say their job is “very or extremely stressful.

To complicate the problem, if you are like most working people, you do not leave the job at the office after quitting time. The stress of work follows you home, impacting your habits away from the office. After a trying day, you may find yourself with no energy or motivation to cook a healthy meal, so you may resort to calling pizza delivery (again). Even though you’re spent, what happens when you climb into bed? Those wheels start turning, thinking about your big presentation the next day or how you’re going to land that big account. Chronic work stress can rob you of quality sleep. Without that, you will lack the energy to perform your daily tasks, let alone making an effort to eat right and exercise.

What causes stress at work

Of course every working person’s work stress is situational. You may have a demanding, unsympathetic boss or a passive aggressive coworker. But whether you wear a suit and sit behind a desk or are out in the field performing a set of technical tasks, there are some forms of occupational stress that span job sectors.

The first and biggest common cause of work-related stress are long hours and a heavy workload. Since the financial crisis ten years ago, the new normal came to be do more with less. The need to carry larger loads with fewer resources just never seemed to disappear.

Another source of stress that many workers can relate to is lacking confidence in completely understanding their job expectations. This could be due to ever shifting priorities or poor training and communication, but feeling unsure is linked to anxiety. And if you constantly feel stress about whether you are measuring up, it is natural to also feel stressed about getting let go or fired. Many in the workforce might secretly carry that fear around them like a heavy weight, which just creates additional chronic stress.

The fear of termination doesn’t just stem from performance these days. It may be too soon to tell at this point, but the emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has many in the workforce wondering if a robot would be able to replace what they do. If true, this would result in increased financial stress as workers invest in developing new skills in order to attain a new position, which could take a substantial amount of time. Add the increasing high cost of living to that scenario and you might find yourself moving to Stressville.

Symptoms of stress

You may be thinking, It’s a job. I’m expected to handle stress. It’s why I was hired. Be careful not to take that kind of stoic thinking too far. Stress can sneak up on you in ways you may not realize, and no one is immune from its impact. Look out for these clues:

  • Do you find yourself reaching for the ibuprofen to squash that nagging headache or muscle pain?
  • Do you have trouble sleeping and are you sluggish most days?
  • Do you feel anxious, restless or have trouble staying focused?
  • Do you get easily irked and snap at people?
  • Do you find yourself reaching for comfort (that is, sugary or fatty) food while working or taking a break?

These are all subtle signs of work-related stress that can affect your job performance, your weight and your health.

How you can combat work-related stress

Yes, work does inherently come with stress, but that doesn’t mean you have to surrender to it. It’s too risky for your weight and health to do that, so you really have no other choice but to find a way to manage it. This begins with establishing the right mindset when presented with stressful circumstances.

First, understand those factors you can control and those you cannot. This often requires you to take a step back from a stressful situation to take a deep breath and look at it objectively. Be honest with yourself to prevent becoming overextended.

Another way to reduce stress is to break an overwhelming work challenge down into smaller components or tasks to make it more manageable. For instance, create three different buckets for tasks that might be labeled, Top priority for me, Assign to someone else, and Revisit later. It’s up to you how to divvy it up. Just find a system that works for you.

To increase your sense of calm, consider adding yoga and/or meditation to your routine. A 2017 study by Frontiers explained that it’s possible to mitigate the negative impacts of chronic stress by improving mind-body health. The study exposed stressed participants to yoga and meditation over a three month period. The participants reported decreases in anxiety and depression as well as increases in mindfulness and even improvements in food choices. By eating healthier and clearing their mind through meditation, the participants positively impacted their responses to stress.

If yoga isn’t your thing, go ahead and choose an exercise you enjoy. Physical activity is a proven stress buster. In a study conducted by Brigham Young University, participants were given a nutritional plan tailored to their needs and told to run 5 days a week for 4 weeks. At the end of the study, the participants had more calm responses to stress and reported to more easily understand why stress was occurring.

Another emerging trend that supports stress reduction on the job is the de-stigmatization of emotional and mental health issues. More companies are offering innovative new services for employees to speak to physiologists and health coaches either by phone, text or video chat. The early reports on these services are very positive, enabling employees to reduce high levels of stress and increase both professional and personal performance.

Work-related stress isn’t going anywhere, but it’s important that you not ignore it. Don’t try to barrel through it with a stiff upper lift. It may seem counter-intuitive in a time-strapped world, but it is critical that you take the time to understand your risks associated with job stress and create your plan to manage it.

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