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Have a Bad Boss? Chronic Job Stress Can Lead to Obesity


Stress, particularly chronic stress, is known to have a negative impact on health. Researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center have observed that workplace stress in particular is strongly associated with being overweight or obese.

The researchers conducted the study of 2,782 employees at a large manufacturing facility in upstate New York. Most of the volunteers were white, middle-aged, highly educated, relatively well paid (earning more than $60,000 annually), with an average of about 22 years at the company. The workers were given a detailed job questionnaire that measured psychosocial work conditions.

Approximately 72 to 75% of the employees were already overweight or obese and most often sedentary. Those working in the most high-stress jobs were on average one BMI unit higher than those who reported less stressful jobs.

When stress was particularly high, such as when layoffs were occurring at the plant, researchers found that the snacks that were highest in fat and calories disappeared most quickly from the vending machines. Workers also reported that they did not take the time to eat well or exercise at lunch for fear of repercussions for leaving their desks for too long. They also admitted to “stress eating” and being burned out from “doing the work of five people”.

Most did not exercise, and more than 65% said they watched two or more hours of television per day.

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In addition to the environmental factors of poor diet and lack of exercise, stress directly affects the neuroendocrine system, resulting in an increase in abdominal fat. It can also cause a decrease in sex hormones, which also leads to weight gain.

Lead author, Diana Fernandez MD MPH PhD, an epidemiologist at URMC’s Department of Community and Preventive Medicine, said her study is among many that show that high pressure jobs can lead to cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, depression, exhaustion, anxiety and weight gain.

A recent study in the British Medical Journal, for example, found that stress at work is an important risk factor for the development of heart disease and diabetes. Men who were under chronic work stress were nearly twice as likely to develop metabolic syndrome.

"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."

The research team has planned a comprehensive two-year nutrition and exercise wellness program for the worksites that include walking routes at work, portion control in food and stress-reduction workshops. The results from the intervention are still being analyzed.

The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine published the research in January 2010.