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New Research Links Stress at Work to Unhealthy Lifestyles

Working Conditions Trigger Poor Diet, Smoking

Worker Stress
Stress at work is linked to unhealthy lifestyle habits such as smoking, obesity and lack of exercise.

02/02/2016
By Karen Angelo

Stress at work is linked to unhealthy lifestyle habits such as smoking, obesity and lack of exercise, according to two research studies conducted by the Center for the Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace (CPH-NEW)

In March 2015, the first study, which was published in “The Scientific World Journal” was conducted at 18 nursing homes with 1,506 healthcare workers. The research showed a correlation between a wide range of stressful working conditions and workers who are smokers, overweight and inactive. 

The correlations were unrelated to socio-economic status. 

The study showed that nearly 90 percent of the participants experienced job stress. One quarter of respondents felt they had little influence over their work situation. More than half had experienced physical assault by nursing home residents or visitors. Smoking was almost twice as high among nursing aides exposed to at least three of five job stressors: low decision control, low supervisor support, having another paid job, physically demanding work, and recent physical assault. 

“Physical and mental stress at work can make it difficult for people to retain good living habits,”says Suzanne Nobrega, outreach director of CPH-NEW, and co-author of the article. “We found that workers were more likely to be overweight, physically inactive or smokers if they experienced more physical and psychological overload at work.” 

The study indicates that younger workers are at greater risk. 

“It’s possible that younger workers who are stressed on the job smoke or overeat to help them cope, whereas older workers may have adapted to their working conditions over time,” says the study’s lead researcher Prof. Laura Punnett of Public Health

The second study, published in the January 2016 issue of the journal “Health Promotion Practice” in partnership with the Massachusetts Coalition of Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH), describes how low-wage jobs influence diet and exercise patterns. Workers interviewed in focus groups reported that high job demands and low job control left little time for adequate lunch breaks, which resulted in eating quickly, overeating or not having time to eat at all. 

One worker quoted in the study says: “At 10:00 a.m., they give me a 15-minute break. I don’t have time to eat healthy food even if I bring homemade food.” 

“Our research is consistent with other studies that show a clear correlation between work and so-called ‘lifestyle’ health behavior,” says Nobrega. “Employees who are stressed and overloaded may not have the opportunity to maintain a healthy lifestyle. They may lack the resources for cooking meals and participating in leisure time physical activity. They may find comfort from eating and smoking to cope with a work environment with violence, high work demands and a lack of social support.”

Many workplace stressors can be addressed through training, improved job design and organizational changes. 

“Employers who are concerned about promoting healthy lifestyles should do more than offer gym memberships, which are not always used. Our study shows that getting to the root of the problem – fixing workplace issues – will make a huge improvement to employee health,” says Nobrega. 

The CPH-NEW Healthy Workplace Participatory Program, available at www.uml.edu/cphnewtoolkit, is a free online toolkit to help employers and employees work together to make the workplace conducive to health and safety. Based at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and the University of Connecticut, CPH-NEW is a Total Worker Health® research and innovation center dedicated to improving the health of working people.