Is your job making you unhealthy?

April 14th 2016 / Anna Hunter

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According to a new study, eating comfort food is our number one way of dealing with work stress. We report on ways that work could feed an unhealthy lifestyle, and how to break the cycle…

Work worries; we’ve all been there. Whether you’re paralysed in front of a particularly nasty spreadsheet or sweating it before presenting in the boardroom, workplace stress can occasionally cause us to sabotage our health somewhat for the sake of scaling the career ladder. Case in point is a new study published by Mintel revealing that reaching for comfort food is our main way of offsetting work induced tension, with 33% of us turning to junk food for stress relief, while 30% of us rely on alcohol to switch off, followed by 15% of respondents reporting that smoking or vaping kept them calm under pressure. Saluting the sun just doesn’t seem to be cutting it when it comes to blowing off workday blues.

Intriguingly, our age could also have an effect on how we deal with work drama. Those in the 35-44 age bracket are most likely to fall prey to the lure of the doughnut, while 25-34 year olds are most likely to use alcohol as a coping mechanism. It’s the youngsters who are turning unhealthy habits on their heads; almost half (49%) disclose that they exercise to combat stress. For the rest of us, an increasingly skewed work/life balance isn’t helping matters, as three in ten of us put our careers first, with 47% of us regularly putting in overtime, not to mention the 43% who consistently check work emails before and after work and over weekends. It’s not surprising that 45% of Brits admit that they neglect their health owing to the fact they’re time poor.

It likely starts with the little things; the skipped lunch break (10% of us almost never take one, while 41% work through lunchtime at least once a week), the sedentary daily commute or the quick and easy processed food options we turn to when time is tight and vending machines are temptingly convenient. Combine time constraints with stress and a screen-facing office existence, and it’s no wonder that the world of work seems at odds with the current wellness movement. Mintel Senior Consumer Lifestyle Analyst Ina Mitskavets thinks that workplaces could step up their game to limit the health implications of contemporary working culture:

“Rising work pressures are having a detrimental impact on people’s wellbeing. But this presents forward-thinking companies with opportunities to come up with creative ways of encouraging employees to embrace a healthier balance, which could result in greater staff retention and loyalty. Amongst the cost-efficient ways of making an immediate difference in employees’ wellbeing are bans on using work email during breaks, such as at lunch, after work or on weekends, and partnerships with companies in the health, wellness and fitness fields.”

Schemes such as the Better Health at Work Alliance (BHWA) aim to champion a shift in both workplace practice and environment to promote greater mental and physical wellbeing amongst UK workers. Given that the UK is forecasted to have the highest level of obesity in Europe amongst women by 2025 (38%), with a fifth of the world’s population projected to be clinically obese by then, according to research carried out by scientists at Imperial College London published in The Lancet earlier this month, it makes sense that workplaces do what they can to reverse the trend. BHWA Director Charlotte Cross echoes this view:

“Obesity is relevant to all employers and can impact the bottom line of any organisation through obvious health ramifications and associated productivity and performance issues. As the obesity problem grows, employers will inevitably face more of these challenges.”

As well as introducing practical measures such as more space for bikes, a shower at work, healthier meal options and opportunities or incentives to get active during the working day (i.e, a running club, lunchtime yoga), companies and employees alike could also benefit from mindfulness programmes, especially if you suspect that stress is affecting your eating habits. Vedic meditation expert and teacher Will Williams thinks that drawing on mindfulness techniques can have a profoundly positive impact on not just your output and state of mind, but your body too:

“I work with many high-flying CEOs and we've run corporate programmes in many workplaces, from Channel 4 to Universal and several media agencies as well, and it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, the consensus is that concentration and the ability to execute tasks increases by up to 25% if you meditate regularly.”

“Concentration when eating plays into this. What is your emotional state when eating at work? Likely you feel stressed or emotional, so it’s even more likely that you’re also going to run into digestive problems, and much of that goodness you are consuming will be wasted.”

“And what about when you’re eating? Are you eating ‘al desko’ as is so common in our screen-heavy world? If so, the stimulation of the screen will cause your digestion to begin shutting down due to the over-activation of your sympathetic nervous system. It doesn’t matter how high quality the produce on your plate, if you can’t digest it, you won’t benefit from it. Take time to step away from your desk at lunchtime; both your belly and your boss will be thankful for it.”

If your boss hasn’t quite come around to the idea of a corporate wellness scheme such as Will’s just yet, psychologist and meditation advocate Elaine Slater’s meditation masterclass will give you the tools to start solo.

Another step in the right direction is the fact that, in spite of our largely desk-bound working hours, women are discussing and participating in sport more than ever. According to Crimson Hexagon, a business intelligence company specialising in the analysis and interpretation of social media data, conversation about sport and taking part in sports amongst women has increased by a whopping 443% since since 2010. Having analysed 850 billion social media posts in the UK between 2010 and 2015, Crimson Hexagon also reports that 23% of women express that they love sport, and in 2015 specifically the company observed a shift in women not just talking about football, but sharing that they play the game too rather than just watch it. In general, 66% of conversations about fitness amongst both men and women were on the topic of completing exercise or a particular challenge, rather than just aiming to do so, while 63% less social media ‘space’ was taken up by people declaring that they dislike exercise or eating healthily. The sports that we’re taking part in are proliferating too, as discussions about CrossFit, yoga and pilates all increased by 350% since 2010.

In a similarly wholesome vein, last year alone there were 72,000 posts about healthy eating in the UK, while we’ve been turned off fast food since 2010, as ⅓ of all comments on the topic of junk food express regret. Beating ourselves up about the odd treat isn’t a wise move, but the fact that we’re acknowledging that eating too much junk is a problem is an indication that good nutrition is increasingly on our radars.

From better sleep patterns (request flexible working hours if insomnia is a persistent problem) to a balanced diet and regular exercise, there are many ways that we can stop our job jeopardising our health. The way we get to work could well make difference, as a 2014 study published in the British Medical Journal found that workers who take public transport to work have lower BMIs that those who drive (or rely on Uber and the like). The benefits of course only increase if you walk or ride a bike.

If all fails, Mintel’s research suggests that going self-employed could help to diminish stress, and thus prevent the ‘domino adverse effect’ that stress can have on our health in general. According to Mintel data, self-employed workers, and those working in an outside environment, report lower stress levels than office employees, with 49% of self-employed workers stating that work stress isn’t something they experience or suffer from, while 41% of those based outdoors don’t identify stress as an issue at work. If you see openings for freelance park rangers, get on it.

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