The Weight of Work Gets Heavier

Stress is one of those things in life that you can’t live with or without. A life with no stress may sound inviting, particularly after a 10-hour day with an expectation of another tomorrow, but the absence of stress begins to resemble death.

Have you ever thought about those people who live to be so old? The secret of long life isn’t “I didn’t ever have any stress”—rather, those who live a long life are usually able to put stress in its place and not get overwhelmed by it.

A recent study of over 10,000 people looked at the effect that stress had on the development of obesity. The results indicated a clear association between feeling excess stress at work and becoming obese. In fact, 73% of people who reported feeling ongoing excess stress and a lack of social support at work over a period of 19 years became obese.


So the solution seems clear: Just get a job that isn’t stressful! But this is unlikely to happen (although it could be part of a solution). Most of us like a job with challenges, where we can “get our hands dirty” and can go home at the end of the day and feel like we did good work. I was proud of the hardest work I ever did: I spent time picking and hanging tobacco. It was without question the most physically challenging job I ever had, but I really felt good about meeting the challenge. At the same time, it was not particularly stressful, so clearly there are jobs out there where there is less stress. Oh yeah, but I only got paid $1.50 per hour—so I guess there was some stress related to that job, too.

The point is, if we’re going to work, we want to feel like we are making a contribution. If we feel too much stress at our current job, looking for a new job is often an option, but every change has its own stresses.

We could also analyze what we feel stressed about and develop some skills that can help us change our minds to see certain situations as less stressful. After all, most stress begins with our perceptions, and we can change our perceptions. We can also find a way to destress while we are at work: meditation, guided imagery, or some brief stretching or yoga at your desk can refresh and replenish you. If you have the privacy, a power nap also works wonders.

Talk with other employees and develop a support system with others who feel the same stress you feel. Take a walk at lunchtime with fellow employees; get out and away from your workstation. Lastly, have a plan when you go home to get some exercise and avoid grabbing the Cheez-Its when you hit the door. The challenges of handling stress will always be part of your life, but the better shape you are in the more likely you’ll be able to meet the demands.

A last possibility is to tell your boss that work stress makes people gain weight, so he or she needs to ease up on the pressure. If nothing else works, maybe that will.

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Joe Nelson: Joe is a psychotherapist in private practice in Minnesota, where he specializes in the psychology of chronic disease and sexual problems and works with couples, families, children, and teens. He has been a Licensed Psychologist since 1985 and has earned a master’s degree from St. Mary’s College Winona, a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Minnesota, and an associate’s degree in human services from the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

Joe has worked with troubled youth in Chicago and Minnesota and on a special project on Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. He was the first social worker hired by an affiliate of the American Diabetes Association. He worked at the International Diabetes Center for 20 years, directing psychological services there for 12 years. A Certified Sex Therapist, Joe co-developed the Sexual Health Center at Park Nicollet Clinic.

Having practiced meditation for over 30 years, Joe offers instruction in mindfulness-based meditation to patients in groups and as individuals. Joe is married, has a 23-year-old daughter, and enjoys scuba diving, motorcycling, golf, and being outdoors doing almost anything.

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