Feeling stressed at work can lead to us reaching for unhealthy snacks and extra portions, but a new study has found that getting enough sleep could help buffer the negative effect of stress on eating habits.
Carried out by a team of researchers from Michigan State University, the University of Illinois, the University of Florida, and Auburn University in the US, along with Sun Yat-sen University in China, the study is one of the first to look at how psychological experiences at work can affect eating behaviors.
The team looked at two studies of 235 total workers in China who experienced regular stress in their jobs.
One study included IT employees who had a high workload and felt there was never enough time in the workday, while the second included call-center workers who experienced stress from dealing with rude and demanding customers.
The researchers found that in both studies employees who had a stressful workday also had a tendency to take these negative feelings home with them, and to the dinner table, leading to them eating more than usual and make unhealthier food choices.
However, the study also showed that sleep could be a way to buffer this effect of stress on unhealthy eating, with the team finding that employees who got a good night’s sleep the night before tended to eat better the next day after a stressful day at work.
Yihao Liu, co-author and assistant professor at the University of Illinois gave two possible explanations for the findings.
“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 said.
“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.”
Chu-Hsiang “Daisy” Chang, MSU associate professor of psychology and study co-author, also commented that the findings that sleep has a protective effect against unhealthy food habits shows how the three health behaviours of sleep, stress, and eating 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 explained.
The team now believe that companies should take into consideration the importance of sleep and healthy behaviors and think about providing sleep-awareness training and flexible scheduling for employees, as well as rethinking food-related job perks, which have become very common.
“Food-related perks may only serve as temporary mood-altering remedies for stressed employees,” Chang said, “and failure to address the sources of the work stress may have potential long-term detrimental effects on employee health.”
The findings were published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.