Job Stress, Thin Wallets Fatten U.S. Workers

By Kathy Gurchiek May 21, 2010

Does my job make me look fat?

A combination of work stress and economic pressure appears to play a role in that widening image the U.S. labor force sees in the mirror, according to survey results released May 19, 2010.

Forty-four percent of 4,803 full-time U.S. workers have gained weight in their current job, a slight increase from 43 percent in 2009, according to findings from an online survey conducted in February and March 2010 for CareerBuilder.

“Especially in this economy, it is easier to pick up unhealthy eating habits in the office as workers spend more time on heavier workloads and less time on themselves,” said Rosemary Haefner, CareerBuilder’s vice president of HR, in a news release.

Among those gaining weight in their current jobs, 28 percent are 10 pounds heavier and 12 percent are 20 pounds heavier. Additionally, a higher percentage of women than men packed on the pounds—50 percent of women vs. 39 percent of men. Among the women, 30 percent gained more than 10 pounds vs. 23 percent of men who did so.

Other findings:

  • 49 percent cited sitting at a desk most of the day as a contributing factor to their weight gain.
  • 32 percent cited stress as a factor.
  • 25 percent cited eating out regularly as a factor.
  • 16 percent cited workplace celebrations such as potluck meals and birthday observations as a factor.
  • 14 percent cited a busy schedule that prompts them to skip healthy meals.

The findings somewhat echo academic research by 11 scientists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and a colleague from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

“Employed adults spend a quarter of their lives at work, and the pressure and demands of work may affect their eating habits and activity patterns, which may lead to overweight and obesity,” they write in Work, Obesity, and Occupational Safety and Health.”

Lead author Paul Schulte does not comment on other surveys and studies, but he did point out to SHRM Online that “there is a growing literature that shows work conditions can be risks for obesity/overweight, and obesity/overweight can interact with workplace hazards.

“The relationship between occupation and obesity and other risk factors is a complex relationship,” he said, including how work is organized, and it can’t be reduced to a cause-and-effect relationship.

The article, which appeared in the March 2007 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, pointed to a study suggesting that work may promote weight gain in three ways:

  • Job stress might be linked with alcohol consumption and sedentary leisure activity.
  • Psychological strain could lead to modified hormonal factors related to weight gain.
  • Long work hours, shift work and overtime could lead to fatigue, limiting the amount of time a person might spend in physical activity off the job.

“There is increasing evidence that obesity and overweight may be related, in part, to adverse work conditions. In particular, the risk of obesity may increase in high-demand, low-control work environments, and for those who work long hours,” they wrote.

“Obesity arises from complex social and biological phenomena but is often perceived as the result of an individual’s behavior,” unlike occupational disease and injury prevention, which typically are primarily the employer’s responsibility, they point out in the paper.

More work is needed “on strategies that merge traditional workplace health protection with workplace health promotion that relates to weight gain and obesity,” they observed.

Obesity is a sensitive personal issue, and workers likely would resist intervention that appears to single out people who are obese, they note.

“One major concern is that attention to obesity in workers will devolve to ‘blaming the victim.’ ”

An alternative approach they suggest is addressing obesity and weight gain with interventions benefiting all employees. Among suggestions they list: diversifying food choices in cafeterias and snack and soda machines, increasing exercise opportunities, and reducing work-related stress for all workers.

Healthier employees are more productive employees, observed CareerBuilder’s Haefner.

“Because of this, we continue to see employers taking a more proactive role in their staff’s health by offering perks such as gym passes, on-site work facilities, wellness benefits and even contests that promote healthy living.”

A free web-based resource is available to employers through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) LEAN Works! Leading Employees to Activity and Nutrition. The program includes interactive tools, resources and a calculator to help an employer estimate how much obesity is costing the company and the savings it could see with workplace interventions.

Employees also can take action, including:

  • Packing a lunch, and snacks such as fruit and low-fat yogurt, to control portions and calorie intake better. About two-thirds of workers snack at least once a day, and one-fourth snack twice a day, according to CareerBuilder.
  • Establishing a workday eating schedule, even if it means using a personal online calendar to send alerts when it is time to eat.
  • Making time for exercise. Only 9 percent of workers do so, according to CareerBuilder. Women are more likely to do this than men—11 percent vs. 8 percent, respectively.
  • Finding a weight-loss buddy in the office. Nearly 10 percent of workers have joined a weight loss program with co-workers.
  • Finding ways to sneak exercise into the work day—take the stairs instead of the elevator, for example.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.


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