The type of responsibility people have at work can affect their chances of becoming obese, according to research published in Social Science & Medicine.

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People who make many decisions at work are more likely to be obese.

In 2014, more than 1.9 billion adults worldwide were overweight; of these, more than 600 million were obese. Researchers believe that the kinds of work people do can contribute to obesity.

Traditionally, increasing an employee's level of control at work has been considered positive.

In the Job Demand-Control-Support (JDCS) model of assessing psychosocial qualities of the workplace, two psychological measures of job control commonly referred to are skill discretion, having and being able to apply skills, and decision authority.

Until now, the two factors have been considered together in terms of their effect on health, because while high job demands are considered stressful, high job control is perceived to help mitigate the effects of high demands.

However, the new study suggests that skill discretion and decision-making should be considered separately, particularly with reference to obesity.

Higher obesity risk for decision-makers

Researchers from the University of Adelaide, Central Queensland University and the University of South Australia looked at data from 450 mostly middle-aged participants - 230 women and 220 men - working in a variety of different occupations, both blue and white-collar.

They measured participants' height, weight and waist circumference and conducted telephone interviews to collect information about their work. They used the JDCS model for their evaluation.

After controlling for sex, age, household income, work hours and job nature, they found that the two factors were comparatively strongly associated with obesity, with surprisingly opposite effects.

The results show that having skills and the freedom to use them at work is linked to lower body mass index (BMI) and a smaller waist size, whereas needing to make a lot of decisions is linked to a bigger waist size.

Lead author Christopher Bean explains that while obesity is often blamed on "eating too much and not moving enough," other factors, such as environmental, psychological, social or cultural situation, are also important.

How does making decisions lead to obesity?

Historically, increased decision-making has been considered desirable at work. However, in the context of global competition, employees with high decision authority may feel overwhelmed by the demands or by poorly defined choices in the workplace.

Excessive decision-making can become a burden of responsibility, leading to increased stress and food consumption or changes in the way the body processes food, leading to excess fat accumulation.

The authors suggest that the level of stress caused by increased job control may depend on personal attributes, such as preference for high- or low-decision authority. A high level of control may be beneficial for self-determined individuals but stressful for non-self-determined individuals.

Bean says:

"When looking at the wide system of factors that cause and maintain obesity, work stress is just a small part of a very large and tangled network of interactive factors.

On the other hand, work is a fundamental part of life for many, so it is important to find innovative ways of extending our understanding of how factors at work may be implicated in the development and maintenance of obesity. It is important to challenge the status quo and explore unexpected or counter-intuitive findings with curiosity."

The high prevalence of obesity and related diseases pose a significant global challenge. Employment is a fundamental part of life for many, and potential risk factors in this environment may be modifiable, making the workplace a potential focus for intervention.

Future research may consider the relative contributions of excess energy intake and inadequate physical activity associated with work stress, and how excess decision authority may be implicated.

Medical News Today recently reported that the percentage of people affected by obesity around the world will rise from 13% to 17%, unless action is taken.

Written by Yvette Brazier