Are Workaholics at Risk for Obesity?

The energy output when focused on success should be a calorie burner.

Posted Dec 10, 2019

A distant relative announced at Thanksgiving dinner that she is planning to retire next year. Her husband immediately said,” No, she won’t. Her whole life is her work, and she will be very depressed if she stops working.”

He might be right. The relative, who I will call Ann, simultaneously complains and boasts about her long working hours, the necessity to awaken at 3 or 4 am to travel to the other end of the state for a meeting, and how she is always on call for emergencies. She is immediately ready to meet the demands of others, regardless of whether they interfere with her very limited free time, she refuses to delegate work to relieve her own obligations, and she will not consider her workday finished unless everything she does is, in her view, perfect. Days off because of holidays are anathema, and she takes vacation time only when necessary to attend family events, such as a funeral. She fits into the definition of a workaholic, although she would disagree, claiming that she is, “…just trying to do my job.”

Ann differs from those who must work long hours, such as police officers or nurses doing extra shifts, or hospital residents who are expected to work 24 hours straight every few days. Ann doesn’t have to work incessantly; her job description does not require an eighty-hour workweek.

Working excessively, and seemingly unable to decrease working hours to a moderate level, has been identified with several mental and physical health problems. Compared to employees who do not exhibit a compulsion to work constantly, the workaholic is more likely to exhibit the mental and physical consequence of stress: difficulty sleeping, anxiety, hypertension, deterioration of personal relationships, and even premature death. 

One obvious effect of long hours at a job is the lack of opportunity to exercise. Motivation may be lacking as well, since the “need to work” is a convenient excuse for, “no need to go to gym.” But does the absence of physical activity exacerbate stress associated with excessive work hours? A study carried out with employees of a medical school found, not surprisingly, that workers who did not exercise had significantly more stress-related illnesses, and those who were willing and able to exercise had significantly less stress. The authors concluded that exercise would mitigate the effects of workplace stress, but did not offer the means by which this could be accomplished. Indeed, an overworked law associate whose workload was almost unbearable, told me that she never saw the extensively outfitted health club in her office building. Her boss was a workaholic and, according to the associate, would not have looked favorably upon the junior lawyers taking time to work out rather than to work.

There is limited information about the food choices of a workaholic. Limited availability of a wide variety of healthy foods after most employees have gone home has been well described for the evening and nighttime shift workers, and one can assume that the workaholic is similarly limited. Often vending machine snacks, or perhaps takeout, are the only options available to the employee alone in an office at midnight.

All of these factors seem to add up to a “perfect storm” for weight gain and obesity. Ann had gained weight steadily over the past ten years. She once mentioned that she lived off snacks and ate meals only when she was at home at mealtime. That was not surprising. Numerous articles have found a close association between jobs that require long hours and obesity. In one study, there was a relationship between the number of hours required in different jobs and weight gain; those who worked 40 hours or less a week were less likely to be obese.

The reasons for the weight gain and inability to lose weight are easy to find: limited availability of low-calorie foods like vegetables and fruit during the extended work hours, less time to shop and prepare healthy foods, sedentary behavior, using work as an excuse to avoid exercising, the stress of taking on almost impossible tasks and completing them, and even isolation because work takes precedence over family and social interactions.

Treating workaholics for obesity is difficult. A client, a thirty-something woman, would tell me tales of work woe to explain why she was gaining weight on the diet. There was always a reason—work-related, of course—why she couldn’t buy the foods on the diet even online, why she certainly could not exercise, why she spent seven days a week at the office and so had no distraction other than food when she wanted relief from the stress of work.

Hypothetically, it might be possible to convince the workaholic that losing weight is the most important accomplishment the individual can attain, and that the same compulsiveness formerly directed toward work would then be directed toward dieting and exercising. But assuming this approach won’t work, then weight-loss intervention must address the need to spend most waking hours working, rather than balancing work with the rest of life. If the workaholic refuses to admit the problem, or is just as likely is proud of being labeled as such an industrious and productive person, then it may require therapeutic interventions to convince the workaholic that his or her health is more important than work.

References

“Workaholism: Definition, Measurement and Preliminary Results,” Spence J and Robbins, A Journal of Personality Assessment; 58:160-178; & “Your work may be killing you! Workaholism, sleep problems and cardiovascular risk,” Salanova M, López-González A, Llorens S.et al, Work & Stress 2016; 30: 228-242.

“Workaholism, Exercise, and Stress-Related Illness, ”Aziz S, Wuensch K and Duffrin C, Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, 2015 30:393-406.

“Work, Obesity, and Occupational Safety and Health,” Schulte P, American Journal of Public Health 2007; 97:428-436.

“The association between long work hours and leisure-time physical activity and obesity,” Cook, M, Gazmararian, J Rev Med Rep 2018; 10: 271-277.