Every few months or so, I’ll catch a headline along the lines of: “Why Your Job Is Making You Fat.” And there’s no doubt that job-related weight gain is worthy of our collective attention. Surveys have found that almost half of employees say they’ve put on weight at their present job, and often it isn’t a case of a few innocent pounds. Twenty-five percent of workers report gaining more than 10 pounds in their current role, and 10 percent report gaining more than 20. Yet analyzing the problem — and the solutions — usually emphasizes personal choices like eating habits and movement, but ignores another key factor: burnout that’s tied specifically to our work.
The message we’re all getting: If employees could just exercise more and swap their fast-food lunches for salads, those pesky pounds would stay away. While there’s no denying the personal responsibility that workers have for their own well-being, we’re not paying enough attention to the conditions that make it harder for people to make better choices. The research clearly shows that employees who experience chronic stress from burnout often adopt unhealthy behaviors that can lead to weight gain. And, as noted in the Harvard Business Review, “unchecked organizational norms insidiously create the conditions for burnout.”
No one is arguing that it’s reasonable for employees to expect to sail through every day free of pressures and hard work (or that addressing workplace stress is going to magically erase someone’s weight issues). But burnout is a different beast entirely, a condition resulting from our always-on culture that includes “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion” and “reduced professional efficacy,” according to the World Health Organization’s definition. Companies are starting to recognize the implications of burnout on their workforce, but where weight is concerned, they may still be focusing on the wrong solutions.
The fact is, businesses and employees alike stand to benefit from a shift in the conversation about weight and work. Obese employees cost U.S. private companies an estimated $45 billion annually in medical bills and work loss, according to a report by The Conference Board. And research suggests that poor body image (which can sometimes result from weight gain) is associated with greater absenteeism, holding oneself back from taking the lead at work, and feeling distracted at work, says Phillippa Diedrichs, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England.
“Job demands and burnout are rarely, if ever, incorporated into wellness or weight-loss interventions,” Heather Padilla, Ph.D., lead author of a study linking burnout and weight gain and an assistant professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health, has said. “But that’s a problem, because if your energy is used up by working all the time, you often don’t have enough left to make healthy decisions about food and exercise.”
And when burnout is linked with sleep-deprivation — as it so often is — it’s even harder to make smart eating decisions that support our well-being. Experts have warned for years that insufficient sleep can lead to weight gain, and there’s plenty of proof. One study by the Mayo Clinic, for instance, found that sleep-deprived individuals ate 559 calories more a day than their well-rested counterparts. And those calories don’t typically come from baby carrots — they come from junk and fat-laden foods. University of Pennsylvania researchers took a unique approach to studying the impact of sleep deprivation on our food choices: They kept one group of study participants awake all night, while allowing another group to sleep. The people who stayed up ate nearly a thousand extra calories during the night. And the next day, more of the calories in the sleep-deprived group came from fats. The reason why, said study author Hengyi Rao, is that a lack of shuteye can change the brain’s “salience network,” the region associated with decision making — in this case, what participants decided to eat.
The bottom line? Standing desks, vending machines filled with fruit instead of candy, and a fitness club allowance are really important for addressing the obesity epidemic — but so is paying attention to burnout. Because if we’re too drained to actually get up from our desks to sneak more movement into our days, and too sleep-deprived to choose the apple over the Pop Tarts, the weight-control deck will be stacked against us.
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