Is your job making you FAT?
And not just because you’re sitting down all day. The real reason we’re piling on the pounds at work may surprise you, says Lowri Turner
WHEN JANE THOMAS came to see me she was tipping the scales at 17½st. A healthy weight as a child and teenager, it was only when she began teaching 15 years ago that the pounds piled on. In part, it was down to the biscuit barrel in the staff room – but it also went deeper. As Jane got promoted and took on more responsibility, eventually becoming deputy head of a secondary school, her own needs got pushed further
down the list, and at the end of a long day she had got into the habit of going home and comfort eating. And she’s not the only one.
As a nutritionist who specialises in weight loss, I see all sorts of people at my clinics. But since starting my practice in 2009, I’ve noticed a subtle pattern running through my clientele. It’s not governed by age or gender, nor even by a particular medical condition, but by profession. A striking number of people who come to me trying to lose weight are teachers, as well as nurses, doctors and social workers; in other words, members of the caring professions. In a US study from 2014, social workers and teachers featured in the top five overweight professionals – and doctors were number seven – while in a British survey from 2013, teachers came in at number three and nurses at number four, beaten only by administrative assistants (arguably a care-giving role, too) and engineers. So what is it about these careers that makes you more likely to pile on the pounds? After all, they are nowhere near as sedentary as, say, call-centre work, being a bank cashier and scores of other desk-based roles.
One important factor is that they can involve long or antisocial hours – and there appears to be a link between shift work and weight gain. According to a 2015 study, shift and night work appear to have a negative effect on worker health, possibly due to their impact on sleep-wake cycles, eating and exercise habits. And, of course, when you’re on a 12-hour shift you probably aren’t going to Zumba on your way home.
Stress may also play a role. Earlier this year, scientists from University College, London compared the stress levels of 2,500 people of varying weights and reported that levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, ‘positively and significantly correlated to larger waist circumference and higher BMI’.
But if it was just down to long hours and pressure, my waiting room would be full of city bankers and air-traffic controllers. Instead it’s the personality type of those drawn to the caring professions that sets them up for a weight problem.
‘Often people in caring professions think about others’ needs before their own,’ says Dr Denise Ratcliffe, a consultant clinical psychologist for Phoenix Health. ‘They get complimented for this and flattery can act as positive reinforcement, so they put their own needs even further back.’
People-pleasing can result in a whole cauldron of unmet emotional needs bubbling beneath the ‘oh, it’s no trouble at all’ demeanour. Dr Ratcliffe explains, ‘People can become deskilled in coping with their own emotions and this is frightening.’ One way to deal with fear is to comfort eat.
This is all too familiar to social worker Jennifer Davies, who had a gastric procedure for weight loss five years ago. ‘I was a chubby child, brought up by an elderly grandparent, so I had to be responsible from a young age. Then I got married and had children and put them before myself. Weight has been a problem all my life. I eat when I’m happy and I eat when I’m sad,’ she says.
Her weight peaked at 19½st five years ago and, though she is a slim 12st today, she points to social worker colleagues who struggle in a similar way. ‘ We don’t look after ourselves. It’s part of the culture. We get a lunch break, but we don’t take it. We don’t find time to eat properly. Our keyboards are all full of crumbs.’
‘We don’t take lunch breaks. Our keyboards are full of crumbs’
Teaching assistant Louise Tomkins* also saw her weight increase after joining a London primary school, gaining 2st in eight years. ‘There is a sort of martyrdom in teaching,’ she admits. ‘I’m so, so busy, I don’t have time to eat a proper meal. So you grab a baguette or some leftover apple pie in the staff room. All my family are teachers and nurses and many are overweight.’
Most of my people-pleasing clients with weight problems are women, but men are affected too. Business coach Ali Gowans, who works with both men and women, says, ‘ When I go into a big organisation, it’s noticeable that those with a caring value set – human resources staff for example – tend to carry more weight.’
‘People-pleasers can have a fear that if they don’t put others before themselves they will be rejected,’ explains Jesse Tremblay, a counselling psychologist at Nightingale Hospital in London. ‘So they sublimate their own needs to avoid the fear of abandonment.’ Those needs don’t go away – and food is one way they can find of comforting themselves.
So is it possible to lose weight and change the pattern of a lifetime without becoming, well, hard-hearted? ‘Being kind and helpful to others is a good thing. It only becomes a problem when a preference for helping becomes a rule,’ points out Tremblay.
He advises his clients to consider what motivates their behaviour. ‘Do you choose to do it or do you feel you must?’ If it’s the latter, he suggests making a list of things you do for others and grading them in terms of the time and energy required, then abandoning the least important tasks. ‘This will increase your belief that the world doesn’t end if you don’t do them.’
Similarly, Dr Ratcliffe gets her clients to focus less on their relationships with others and, instead, to think about their ‘internal relationship’ with themselves. ‘They need to equalise those relationships,’ she says. She suggests they ask themselves this question: ‘ Would they allow someone they were caring for to go all day without eating?’ The answer is no. So why would you do that to yourself?