Smarts and Stamina

Promoting Attractive Minds in Productive Bodies

Can Workplace Stress Make You Fat?

Insight from studying well-being in 150 countries over 60 years

“Do you enjoy going to work everyday?” might be one of the most pertinent yet most overlooked health questions ever asked. Turns out your boss has a lot more influence over your health than you thought.

After studying well-being in more than 150 countries and interviewing people of all ages for roughly 60 years, here’s Gallup’s insight:

“Career wellbeing might be one of the most important priorities to consider for maintaining good health over the years,” say Tom Rath and Jim Harter, authors of Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements.

The Dark Side of Workplace Stress

It makes sense. At work, lower well-being usually means higher stress and anxiety. Higher stress and anxiety translate into higher cortisol levels in the body. Higher cortisol can lead to insomnia, increased appetite, a weakened immune function, an impaired cardiovascular system, accelerated brain cell loss, and, you guessed it, weight gain. As if this weren’t enough, Rath and Harter also found that as engagement at work go down, cholesterol and triglycerides tend to rise. 

Smarts and Stamina Health Promotion Model
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This research ties very well with the Smarts and Stamina's health promotion model, which shows that our sleep, food, mood, and exercise habits are mutually reinforcing thanks to the biochemical activity that each generates in the body. In other words, when one group of habits goes out of whack, it can drag the others down.

For those who live under high work stress, maintaining healthy sleep, food, and exercise habits can therefore be difficult. Just think about it: After a rough day at work, most of us are more tempted to sit on the couch eating chips or ice cream all night than to choose a light meal and go for a run or a yoga class.

It should be no surprise therefore that we find more and more research linking workplace stress and weight gain directly. 

The Health Benefits of Improved Career Well-Being 

Anyone who has lived on both sides of the coin, being crushed by a terrible boss as well as thriving in a supportive work environment, can attest that reducing workplace stress and improving career well-being boost mood tremendously. With a boosted mood comes a snowball effect of health-promoting bio-reactions, which in turn benefit our sleep, food, and exercise habits.

Happiness researchers Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener took a different road than mine. Rather than study biochemical activity and its repercussions, they looked at people’s behaviors directly. They confirm that happier people tend to have better health habits, generally speaking.

Rath and Harter’s research also validates that improving career well-being and engagement at work have all the opposite health effects of workplace stress.

Wellness Leadership

So career well-being has considerable repercussions on our mental state, overall health habits, and weight. 

For the employed, the biggest determinant of career well-being is the immediate superior. Like it or not, your boss is either helping or hindering your health big time. Working with a good boss could be even more important than choosing the ideal doctor, no disrespect to anyone who has had the courage, talent, and dedication to survive through med school. 

For the corporate wellness leaders out there, if your employees' biometrics are a concern, your worksite wellness program may not be the answer. Turns out, management style may have more to do with everyone's health habits than your latest nutrition or exercise campaign. 

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MJ Shaar, MAPP, CPT, is the Founder and Owner of Smarts and Stamina, a company devoted to helping wellness professionals thrive.  MJ is the author of Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance

MJ is regularly featured in the media and in industry conferences. She isavailable for speaking engagements, training workshops, media commentary, and private wellness coaching. To learn more, contact MJ at mj@SmartsAndStamina.com, or visit www.SmartsAndStamina.com.

Connect with MJ on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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Shortlist of References: 

Diener, E. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2008). Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Wiley-Blackwell.

Rath, T. & Harter, J. (2010). Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements. Gallup Press.

Shaar, M.J. & Britton, K. (2011). Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. Philadelphia, PA: Positive Psychology Press. 

University of Rochester Medical Center (2010, March 24). Rochester Study Connects Workplace Turmoil, Stress and Obesity. Retrieved August 26, 2014. from http://www.urmc.rochester.edu/news/story/index.cfm?id=2803

Marie-Josée Shaar, MAPP, CPT trains wellness professionals in health promotion and positive psychology skills. She's the Founder of Smarts and Stamina and author of a book by the same name.

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