A demanding workload at your job or school can increase your stress level — and your waistline. Here’s what you can do about it.

Share on Pinterest
Feelings of burnout from work or school can lead to unhealthy behaviors that can cause some people to gain weight. Getty Images

We include products we think are useful for our readers. If you buy through links on this page, we may earn a small commission. Here’s our process.

Exhaustion and work fatigue might be bad for more than just your morale. They might be terrible for your waistline, too.

A new study from researchers at the University of Georgia in Athens found that adults who feel overworked or burned out often adopt an array of unhealthy behaviors that can lead to weight gain.

The researchers recruited almost 1,000 men and women who were working full-time jobs. They asked them to answer questions about their workloads as well as their feelings of exhaustion or burnout. They also asked the study participants to report their eating and exercise habits.

The results showed that employees with heavier or more demanding workloads are more likely to engage in emotional eating and eat without stopping. They also tend to pick foods that have more fat.

Participants who were burned out showed the same unhealthy behaviors. They also exercised less, which further compounds weight gain potential.

“It makes perfect sense that chronic stress from work manifests in negative health behaviors and habits,” said clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD. “The human psyche and physical body have a finite amount of energy. When the energy is depleted or nearing depletion, the systems won’t function at optimal capacity.”

She added, “When it comes to diet and exercise habits, the overstressed employee may simply be so depleted by work that the mind unconsciously or consciously says, ‘Hey, I’m exhausted. I know I should exercise and eat right, but I just don’t have the time nor energy.’ When this cycle is repeated, strong neural pathways are formed, and the habitual unhealthy behaviors become the norm.”

The International Classification of Diseases (ICD) added burnout to their list of diagnosable syndromes in 1992.

In the 11th revision of ICD, which will be released in 2022, they expand the definition of the syndrome, making it clear burnout is the result of occupational stress and related exhaustion.

Some corporations and companies recognize the long-term impact this stress, poor self-care practices, and a lack of exercise can have in their workforce.

Indeed, companies have been implementing workplace wellness programs for the last decade or so. Many of them focus on weight management and overall wellness, aspects of health that increase healthcare costs for the company and could lead to reduced productivity in the future.

But one element that seems to be missing in many of these wellness programs is a focus on handling the demands of a job. As this research shows, these demands can play a significant role in an employee’s health.

“Employers can do a great deal to create collaborative work environments that reduce stress and fuel noncompetitive, positive energy,” Manly said. “Clear employee goals, flexible work hours, and reasonable expectations also foster stress-free, positive work environments.”

Manly also says employers could consider staffing a receptive, supportive HR staff because they’re “vital for reducing overall stress, offering stress-reduction learning opportunities, and facilitating ongoing support for stressed employees.”

“There is a construct in psychological research called ‘self-control’ that is well understood and very much part of our daily lives,” said Chandler Chang, PhD, a psychologist and founder of Therapy Lab. “Self-control is what drives us to do things we may not initially want to do but that contribute to our well-being in the long run.”

This includes things like exercise, good nutrition, and self-care, all of which can help people live healthier lives.

“The fascinating thing about self-control is that it works like a gas tank,” she said. “At the beginning of the day, our self-control ‘tanks’ are full, but by the end of the day, especially a long, grueling workday, our tanks are running on empty.”

In short, when you’re out of energy, you have to fight a lot of instincts to overrule yourself.

“People often blame themselves when their energy runs out and they make less healthy choices, but really it’s more about keeping that self-control tank full,” Chang said.

Here are some tips that may help:

1. Be aware

The first step to reversing the problem is recognizing it — and then being willing to do something about it.

“Armed with nonjudgmental self-awareness, the individual can slowly but surely make choices that are healthier in the long term,” Manly said. “For example, healthy lunches and dinners can be prepped on Sundays to allow for easier healthy eating during a busy week.”

2. Ask for breaks and boundaries

Employers can help their employees keep their “gas tanks” full by offering breaks and setting healthy boundaries, like no evening emailing. If your employer doesn’t provide those boundaries or you think they’re still too intrusive, ask for adjustments.

3. Focus on sleep

Good sleep can cover a lot of ills. Poor sleep compounds work-related stress and anxiety.

“Initially stress can suppress appetite, but when it is prolonged, it can lead to comfort eating or overindulgence in food and alcohol,” said Sabina Brennan, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Trinity College Dublin and author of “100 Days to a Younger Brain.” “When you get insufficient sleep or broken sleep, you will eat more the next day. Getting only four hours’ sleep for six days is sufficient to push your body into a prediabetic state.”

4. Go to HR

If your best efforts to rectify your exhaustion and burnout don’t amount to any changes, you may want to seek support and guidance from your company’s human resources staff, Manly says.

These individuals are professionals with experience in helping employees sort through work-related issues and find reasonable solutions. Stressing your concerns to them may not only help you; it may help others in the same boat as you in the long run.