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

The Sunday Telegraph - Stella - - EDITORS’ PICKS -

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?

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