Why your job causes you to overeat and how you can stop it
As if work stress wasn't bad enough, now it might be behind our terrible dinner choices too
You've spent (at least) a solid 8 hours at your desk, typing, shuffling paper, fending off passive aggressive comments from a co-worker, all while breathing in poorly circulated air. You commute home, warily, unlock your front door... and next thing you know you're deep into a half-frozen but very cheesy pizza. We've all succumbed to poor eating habits — deliciously empty calories are waiting for us on our screens, sidewalks and in our cupboards. Every time we fall off the wellness wagon, we often blame ourselves; it's easy to internalize our choices as personal weakness, creating a harmful cycle of self-loathing and indulgence. But before we take all of the blame for what's on our plates, a new pair of studies suggest it could really be the fault of our stressful jobs.
New findings, co-authored by scholars at Michigan State University, the University of China, Auburn University and the University of Florida, suggest that there is a strong relationship between the stress we experience at work and the poor food choices we make later that day. The first study looked at 125 IT workers in China, who generally felt overworked and that there was simply not enough time in the workday to complete their tasks. Each worker kept daily diaries, chronicling their work stresses, mood, eating habits and sleep quality. The second study applied the same approach, but with 110 customer service employees at a Chinese telecommunications centre, who often had to deal directly with rude or overbearing customers. Both studies trended similarly; those who reported increased stress also had higher negative emotions and favored unhealthy food choices in the evening. What made the results more potent was that each set of workers was experiencing a different kind of stress - the IT workers having a high volume of work (and lack of time) while the customer service employees had to deal with a more social stress from personal interactions - yet the results remained the same.
Researchers offered two possible explanations for the relationship between the workers' stress levels and eating habits. First, after being placed under stress, individuals would rather feel the opposite emotion of desire, shifting their brains towards wanting something rather than the unwanted situation they were in all day. In that state of overdriven desire, it's easy to see how junk food is the quickest, cheapest and most available fix after a long day's work. The second explanation is that the poor self control stems from a feeling of inadequacy. Work stress often stems from external forces, like bosses, coworkers, and overactive email. Even if you work for yourself, you're usually at the whim of the outside world to determine the quantity and quality of your work. We might be taking that loss of autonomy home with us, letting our inadequacy bleed over into the personal choices we make. Lest you you think job stress pitfall stops there... a 2016 study from Indiana University linked consistently high stress occupations with a shorter life span.
All health hope is not lost, there is some good news; both sets of results showed that improvements in a worker's quality of sleep left them better prepared (emotionally and physically) to handle their daily work stresses and thus, in a better position to make healthier food choices. Inversely, a poor night's sleep can lead to more job stress which leads to more poor eating and so on. Though, if things start to go off the rails at the office, making a point of getting a good night's sleep can make sure you'll manage your stress better tomorrow.
Every type of job has its own stresses - whether it be quantitative, qualitative or interpersonal - and all companies can do a better job of managing their employees' workloads and general health (though the need is there already). But in the meantime, if your work starts getting unbearable and you want to prevent a binge, call it a night.