Stress at your job can lead to overeating and intake of junk food at dinnertime, but there could be a buffer to this harmful pattern. New research suggests that a good night's sleep can serve as a protecting factor between job stress and unhealthy eating in the evening.
"We found that employees who have a stressful workday tend to bring their negative feelings from the workplace to the dinner table, as manifested in eating more than usual and opting for more junk food instead of healthy food," said study co-author Chu-Hsiang Chang, Associate Professor of Psychology at Michigan State University in the US.
The research, published online in the Journal of Applied Psychology, involved two studies of 235 workers in China. One study dealt with information technology employees who regularly experienced high workload and felt there was never enough time in the workday.
The second study involved call-centre workers who often got stressed from having to deal with rude and demanding customers.
In both cases, workday stress was linked to employees' negative mood while on the job, which in turn was linked to unhealthy eating in the evening, study co-author Yihao Liu, Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois, said.
The study proposed two potential explanations, Liu said.
"First, eating is sometimes used as an activity to relieve and regulate one's negative mood, because individuals instinctively avoid aversive feelings and approach desire feelings," he said.
"Second, unhealthy eating can also be a consequence of diminished self-control. When feeling stressed out by work, individuals usually experience inadequacy in exerting effective control over their cognitions and behaviours to be aligned with personal goals and social norms," Liu added.
The finding that sleep protects against unhealthy eating following workday stress shows how the health behaviours are related, Chang pointed out.
"A good night's sleep can make workers replenished and feel vigorous again, which may make them better able to deal with stress at work the next day and less vulnerable to unhealthy eating," she said.
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