By Michael Breus, PhD, ABSM
Do you put extra hours in at work? Do you pick up extra shifts to generate overtime pay? Does the ever-growing pile of work on your desk cause you to stay late or come in early in an attempt to stay on top of things? Do you cut yourself short on sleep because of the pressures and demands of work?
If you do, you’re like plenty of other working adults who are logging long hours, coping with work-related stress, and generally not getting enough rest. Overwork and little sleep can affect every aspect of our lives, from relationships, job performance, and daily wellbeing to our fundamental health. A new study suggests that difficult and demanding work schedules also can contribute to obesity.
Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine investigated the association between obesity and work schedules among 1,700 women nurses. They divided the nurses into two categories: those with favorable work schedules, and those with unfavorable work schedules. The criteria for unfavorable work schedules included:
- Working long hours
- Being on call
- Working overtime
- Carrying a heavy workload
- Lack of rest
Among the nurses in the study, 700 were determined to have unfavorable, or adverse, work schedules. The remaining 1,000 nurses were considered to have favorable work schedules. Researchers then examined the incidence of obesity among each group, and factors related to health behaviors, home demands, and work demands that might contribute to obesity. They found a majority of nurses were overweight or obese, and that work schedules appeared to influence the risk factors that contributed to weight problems:
- 55% of nurses in both groups were either overweight or obese
- Nurses with unfavorable work schedules slept less, reported less restful sleep, and exercised less than their counterparts with more favorable schedules. Obesity among this group was linked to these factors.
- Among nurses with favorable work schedules, obesity was more strongly linked to unhealthy behaviors, including smoking, and alcohol use, and to job stress
Nursing is a demanding and high-stakes profession. While nurses are on the front lines of caring for patients’ health and wellbeing, many are also likely to be working long hours, working evenings and overnight, or on schedules that rotate between day and night. In this regard, nurses are like the millions of Americans who are employed in shift work—jobs that require workers to keep irregular schedules, which often require them to work during nighttime hours and to sleep during some portion of the day.
Shift work poses a number of well-documented challenges to health and to sleep. Shift workers are more likely than regular workers to suffer from disrupted and low sleep. They are also at elevated risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes. Shift work is common among jobs that involve public health and public safety, from police and firefighters to transportation workers, doctors, EMTs, and, yes, nurses. The health and competence of shift workers is an important issue for all of us.
But what about those of us who don’t work overnight shifts in a hospital, or an aircraft control tower? This study focused on nurses in particular, but there is other research that shows overtime hours and adverse work conditions may be linked to obesity among a broader work population:
- This research project compared data from three groups of workers in three different nations and found that lack of physical activity, unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, and obesity itself were associated in different ways with adverse work conditions including job strain and working overtime
- A study of Japanese mail workers found a possible link between job stress and overeating, leading to obesity
- A three-year study of white-collar workers found an association between body-mass index and waist size and overtime work
The connection between obesity and adverse work conditions including overtime is still not fully clear. In several of these and other studies, the association between the two is not strong or definitive. We need to see more research on how work schedules can influence weight problems and obesity.
There is a lot we do know, though, about the lack of sleep that is so prevalent among the American workforce. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control showed nearly a third of American workers are sleeping less than six hours per night. In some industries—including shift workers—that number is much higher.
We also know a lot about the connection between the lack of sleep and weight problems. Not getting enough sleep causes hormonal changes that stimulate appetite. Being short on sleep prompts changes in the brain that make junk food even more enticing than it already is. Sleep deprivation lowers metabolism and diminishes the judgment and willpower necessary to make smart food choices. Sleeping less often translates into weighing more over the long term.
We all have different work demands, different schedules, and different challenges related to our jobs. One thing we have in common? To the extent that our work conditions are interfering with our sleep, they may also be negatively affecting our weight.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™