Killer Jobs: Obesity and the Workplace

"I wonder if I have time to grab a Filet-O-Fish before I have to head back to the office?"

“I wonder if I have time to grab a Filet-O-Fish before I have to head back to the office?”

When it comes to the to topic of obesity in the workplace, it doesn’t seem too surprising to hear that people who work desk jobs have higher rates of obesity than people who have super active jobs. Makes sense, actually – sitting on your butt all day doesn’t burn too many calories. What is a bit surprising, however, is that some of those jobs that have the highest rates of obesity can actually be found in the health care industry. Doctors aren’t the ones experiencing this issue (how could they, running around all day?), but the employees who are working in customer service and administrative support positions.

A March 2014 study that published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine looked over data from 2010 and revealed some interesting (and sort-of bummer) facts about the relationship between occupation and rates of obesity. While controlling for variables like demographics, the study concluded that people in occupations with certain common details are at a significantly high risk and likelihood of developing obesity, like long hours, low pay, and high stress. Again, this makes sense. High stress + little to no money – any time to cook = McDonald’s for dinner. While those of us trying to hustle might not want to hear this, according to the data compiled in the study, working over 40 hours a week is surefire way to increase your risk of obesity, as are working in a hostile environment and working in an occupation that has little to no job security.

Does anyone else taste the irony here? The industry tasked with keeping the United States healthy, to eradicate preventable diseases like diabetes and obesity, can’t even keep the people in charge of this important task at healthy weights. It’s like trying to take advice on not smoking from a person constantly puffing on a cigarette. And before we say, “Well it’s not up to the healthcare industry to police the weights of its employees – they should be doing it themselves,” it’s important to remember that obesity is a very complex disease that is caused by an interplay of all kinds of physiological, social and economic factors. You can do breathing exercises to lower stress until you’re blue in the face and light-headed, but the work environment is certainly not always entirely within an individual’s control. Feeling trapped in a dead-end job with financial obligations but few options for advancement can be just as stressful as being bullied by co-workers (albeit in completely different ways). And jobs that offer low pay with little to no medical benefits make it difficult to eat in healthy ways, stay energized and productive over long hours and seek medical support to manage weight and stress. It’s a a situation that’s much more complex than “You should eat better” or “Just exercise after work,” and it’s one that affects more industries than just healthcare.

In addition to medical employees, people who work jobs like those found in the private security industry and the police force exhibit high obesity rates as well, which is probably due to the levels of stress and inconsistency of shifts associated with those occupations (or maybe it’s all the donuts). The research also indicates that people who work swing shifts have an extraordinarily difficult time managing stress, which can build up chronic inflammation in the body over time, lower the immune system and lead to conditions such as heart disease and even cancer. Public administration and information jobs exhibit high rates of obesity as well, partly due to the nature of being at a desk so much of the workday. The problem is, these jobs are all necessary. How would anything in the city ever get done if society got rid of the public administration support jobs that keep things running? Sure, the workplace isn’t an even playing ground and it probably never will be- some people will always work in offices and other will always be out in the world – but it definitely doesn’t have to be a path to an early grave.

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