Eating your feelings: Auburn researcher examines the interplay between sleep, workplace stress and diet

Published: Jul 17, 2017
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We've all had rough days at the office triggered by irate customers, unrealistic deadlines, micromanaging supervisors or untimely computer crashes. In those moments, it's easy to seek comfort from the box of glazed donuts in the office breakroom—followed by a cheeseburger, large fries and hot fudge sundae after work.

A new study by researchers at Auburn University's Raymond J. Harbert College of Business, Michigan State University, the University of Illinois, the University of Florida and China's Sun Yat-sen University indicates that a restful night of sleep can provide an important shield between workplace stress and impulsive and unhealthy after-hours eating. Their study—"Eating Your Feelings? Testing a Model of Employees' Work-Related Stressors, Sleep Quality, and Unhealthy Eating"—is believed to be one of the first to examine the links between sleep, psychological experiences at work and eating habits. The findings were recently published online in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

"The findings can help employees understand how their work impacts their health and what they can do about it," said Jaclyn Koopman, an assistant professor of management in Auburn's Harbert College of Business. "Most, if not all, working adults experience the challenge of managing work demands and finding the energy and willpower to follow a healthy lifestyle."

The researchers examined the behavior of 235 workers in China—125 from five information technology companies and 110 customer service employees from a telecommunications company. Among the findings:

  • When the information technology workers experienced higher levels of job demands in the morning, they consumed a wider variety of unhealthy foods and made fewer healthy food choices in the evening. Sleep quality from the previous night also provided a layer of defense between morning work demands and unhealthy food choices in the evening.

  • Examination of the customer service employees revealed a positive correlation between morning interactions with rude or verbally abusive customers and nighttime overeating. The second study group also provided evidence of sleep quality providing a buffering effect between job stressors and unhealthy eating choices. The co-authors found that quality sleep "weakened the effect of customer mistreatment on negative mood."

A 2016 study by researchers from RAND Europe found that the U.S. economy loses more than $410 billion and 1.2 million workdays due to sleep deprivation among its workforce. But the research conducted by Koopmann and her co-authors sheds light on how companies may be working against their interests by leaving free doughnuts in the breakroom or stocking vending machines full of candy bars and chips.

"When employers offer complimentary snacks or stock vending machines, the types of food are often unhealthy," Koopmann said. "Although employees may get some temporary relief from their stress by consuming these snacks, they don't help the employee or the company in the long run. The employee is likely to suffer physical health consequences, such as the increased risk of diseases associated with weight gain, over the long term. The poor physical health of employees may not only lead to lower productivity on the job, but also increased absences due to illness or injury, and even increased health insurance costs for the organization."

Some companies have introduced game rooms, "nap pods," on-site gyms and group fitness classes as a means of recharging and reinvigorating their workforces, but those perks may be cost-prohibitive for most. Koopmann said businesses can turn to other meaningful, lower-cost options.

"Organizations may simply initiate health and wellness programs that bring awareness to healthy eating and the impact of stress on eating behaviors," she said. "Those programs could also cover the importance of sleep and ways to improve sleep. Organizations could also offer flexible work schedules that would allow for later starts or midday napping to ensure employees are well-rested."

In addition to Koopman, co-authors on the Journal of Applied Psychology study include University of Illinois Assistant Professor Yihao Liu, University of Florida doctoral candidate Yifan Song, Michigan State University Associate Professor Chu-Hsiang "Daisy" Chang, University of Florida Professor Mo Wang and Sun Yat-sen University Professor Junqi Shi.