To deal with workplace stress—and the unhealthy eating that can result from it—get better rest, new research suggests.
“When workers slept better the night before, they tended to eat better when they experienced stress the next day.”
“We found that employees who have a stressful workday tend to bring their negative feelings from the workplace to the dinner table, as manifested in eating more than usual and opting for more junk food instead of healthy food,” says study coauthor Chu-Hsiang “Daisy” Chang, an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University.
“However, another key finding showed how sleep helped people deal with their stressful eating after work,” she adds. “When workers slept better the night before, they tended to eat better when they experienced stress the next day.”
The research involved two studies of 235 total workers in China. One study dealt with information-technology employees who regularly experienced high workload and felt there was never enough time in the workday. The second study involved call-center workers who often got stressed from having to deal with rude and demanding customers.
In both cases, workday stress was linked to employees’ negative mood while on the job, which in turn was linked to unhealthy eating in the evening, says coauthor Yihao Liu, assistant professor at the University of Illinois.
The study proposed two potential explanations, Liu says.
“First, eating is sometimes used as an activity to relieve and regulate one’s negative mood, because individuals instinctually avoid aversive feelings and approach desire feelings,” he says. “Second, unhealthy eating can also be a consequence of diminished self-control. When feeling stressed out by work, individuals usually experience inadequacy in exerting effective control over their cognitions and behaviors to be aligned with personal goals and social norms.”
Chang says the finding that sleep protects against unhealthy eating following workday stress shows how the health behaviors are related.
“A good night’s sleep can make workers replenished and feel vigorous again, which may make them better able to deal with stress at work the next day and less vulnerable to unhealthy eating,” she says.
To address the problem, companies should emphasize the importance of health management for their employees and consider sleep-awareness training and flexible scheduling.
Companies should also reconsider the value of food-related job perks, which have become very common.
“Food-related perks may only serve as temporary mood-altering remedies for stressed employees,” Chang says, “and failure to address the sources of the work stress may have potential long-term detrimental effects on employee health.”