Doctors often advise overweight patients to diet and exercise. But what if a lack of exercise isn’t the problem? "Obesity/Overweight and the Role of Working Conditions," a new report released Nov. 13 by the University of Massachusetts Lowell, MassCOSH and the Boston Workers Alliance, examines how we look at obesity health risks and sheds new light on obesity and low-wage workers.
It widely is recognized that overweight and obesity disproportionately affect lower income individuals. However, most studies examine office work and other sedentary jobs where weight reduction suggestions such as taking the stairs and walking to work might apply. These researchers have found that housekeepers, janitors and other blue collar workers – who rarely sit during the day – have neither the time nor the energy to benefit from these traditional recommendations.
“I don’t have the desire to do exercise after standing for 15-16 hours,” said one research participant. “I just want to eat and sleep. The next day is the same thing all over again.”
This study investigated whether lower-income workers perceived any factors in the workplace that have an effect on their weight status. Ninety-two low-wage Latino and Black or African American workers contributed to the study. Participants came from a variety of industries, including housekeeping/cleaning, restaurant/food service, construction, healthcare/human services and manufacturing.
They described a range of factors – time pressure, psychological stress and decreased ability to exercise after injury or illness (i.e., depression) – that influenced their diets. These findings are supported by additional in-depth interviews with lower-income workers, examination of national data and a review of existing scientific literature, creating a multifaceted picture of the role of working conditions in the development of overweight/obesity among lower-income workers.
Factors that Impact Body Weight
Low-wage workers identified several factors that they perceive to have an impact on body weight, including:
Physically demanding work – Having a physically demanding job often resulted in illnesses and/or injuries, influencing workers’ ability to participate in physical activity outside of the job. Physical fatigue from work also played a role in the quantity of food consumed at the end of the workday.
Psychosocial stressors – Experiences of high demands in the workplace led some workers to feel stressed and consume more high-calorie foods, such as candy and soda. Workers also reported feelings of exhaustion, having multiple jobs and responsibilities, and scheduling as elements of a heavy workload.
One study respondent commented, “The work that three people used to do is given to one person. That creates more stress and eating more.”
Time pressure – Many workers reported having only 15 minutes to eat during their working hours, making it difficult to prepare and eat healthy food in a short period of time. Female workers often discussed the interaction between work and family, specifically how the combination of responsibilities at work and at home reduced available time to engage in physical activity and eat healthy. For these workers, reliance on convenience foods was a particularly important time-saving strategy.
“At 10 a.m., they give me a 15-minute break. I don’t have time to eat healthy food, even if I bring homemade food,” said one worker, adding, “I don’t have time to do exercise.”
Food environment at work – Workers reported having limited access to healthy food, due to their limited mealtime and the location of their workplace. According to workers, many of their workplaces fail to provide them with the appropriate equipment and space to eat meals, which influences their diet.
“I cannot even talk about the cafeteria,” said one worker, “because that ‘cafeteria’ is in the corner of a dirty and unsanitary room.”
Recommendations for Employers
To enhance the working conditions reported by lower-wage workers in the study, the researchers offered recommendations aimed at employers, policymakers and stakeholders. The full list can be found starting on page 5 of the report, but here are the recommendations for employers:
Breaks and meals
- Allow sufficient time for breaks and meals; provide the state-mandated 30 minutes consecutively, as a single break.
- Support daily communication of rest and meal break times to employees, to reduce anxiety about hunger and to facilitate healthy meal planning.
- Provide a clean space for eating, with sufficient functional equipment (refrigerator and microwave) for the number of employees on site.
Workload and scheduling
- Determine physical workloads that are moderate enough to avoid excessive fatigue and risk of injury.
- Institute health and safety programs that identify and reduce or eliminate ergonomic hazards.
- Involve workers in scheduling decisions for shift work and overtime to promote family balance and mental health.
Support for employees
- Encourage supportive supervisory and management styles.
- Promote programs that identify and eliminate bullying and sexual harassment.
- Select group health coverage and third-party service contractors that address working conditions and are sensitive to the needs of low-wage workers.
- Establish worker-management committees that incorporate health, safety and wellness.
“Programs to address obesity in lower-wage workers must include the work environment as a fundamental starting point,” researchers concluded. They suggested employers:
- Analyze work organization, work scheduling, physical demands and psychosocial stressors.
- Adopt policies for mealtime and rest breaks.
- Create clean, adequately equipped eating facilities.
- Offer strong health and safety protections.