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Does Your Company Have a Weight Problem?

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Stress, long hours, unrealistic expectations – all contributing factors to weight gain for burnt out employees. But are we blaming ourselves for our weight problems without looking at the role our working environment plays?
Aidan Mc Cullen on why companies need to wake up and start taking responsibility for their employees health.

When asked what surprised him most about humanity, the Dalai Lama replied:

“Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”

 

The Cycle Begins

You get a new job. It promises great things.

A few people you told about the company you were joining wished you luck, caveating that it is a great experience and a great place to learn.

A few others caveated with look after yourself. Others still, looked uncomfortable when you told them where you were going. You don’t know what they meant.

Your parents are proud because it is a well known company and they come from a time when you had a job for life, enjoying your job rarely came into the equation. You think your friends, ex-colleagues and social media connections will be impressed, after all, it is a great brand.

Six months pass and you are struggling, you were sold a pup, it is not what you thought it would be. You question yourself. Should you leave? If you leave, you will look soft, what will your parents think? What will your friends think? What will your next employer think? What will your LinkedIn connections think?

 

You have started eating your dinner at work, after all it saves you cooking and you’d be working late anyway

 

You decide to knuckle down, maybe you need to experience more pain for more gain? You put in extra hours, 70 or 80-hour weeks, this is a great opportunity, don’t blow it.

A few months later, you have gained weight. You wonder if it is the complimentary food that comes with the job? It is a great perk after all, although you usually just grab a pastry and coffee for breakfast and have it at your desk and wolf down your pasta at lunchtime.

You have started eating your dinner at work, after all it saves you cooking and you’d be working late anyway. When you do get home, you have a glass of wine and some chocolate before bed as you watch some mindless TV to take your mind off the job. It helps you sleep.

You decide to tell your partner about your stress. They don’t react the way you think they will. They say “That is just the way work is”. You gulp and think you are the problem.

Worldwide, nearly one in ten adults had diabetes in 2014, and the disease will be the seventh leading cause of death by 2030, according to the World Health Organisation.

While much of the onus lies with the worker, workplace stress is a major contributor. But how does work contribute?

 

Behind the Scenes — What is Going On Inside?

We know what is happening while you are at work, but what is happening on the inside of your body and why are you gaining weight?

 

Origins of Stress

You are a caveman, you see (or think you see) a sabre-toothed cat in your peripheral vision, you flee as quickly as possible. You discover it was just a small animal in a bush, you breathe a sigh of relief, you are still alive.

When your body perceives a threat, it releases adrenalin. Adrenalin, thickens the blood so you bleed less quickly in case you get cut or injured. Your body dumps sugar and fat into your system, shuts down digestion, constricts blood vessels, takes blood away from muscles and internal organs. It increases your heart rate and blood pressure to prepare you for a physical fight or to run away should you need to.

Concurrently, your brain restricts all non-essential thoughts so you can focus on fight or flight decisions.

In the corporate world, we don’t experience sabre-toothed cat attacks. But our ancient survival strategies remain part of our modern-day stress responses. Let’s look at that next.

 

Groundhog Day

A step before a full adrenaline release is cortisol release, a slower acting adrenalin if you will.

Our bodies release cortisol when we experience or perceive longer-term stresses. Such stresses include impending threats, such as bully bosses, deadlines, interpersonal office difficulties, work overload and martial stress.

Typically, our bodies release quite a lot of cortisol in the morning, because it helps wake us up. After that initial spike it should be present only in low levels throughout the day, especially at night when it clears the path for sleep chemicals such as melatonin.

If we are stuck in stress patterns for prolonged periods of time our bodies become less efficient at releasing cortisol in the morning. Coupled with the unnecessary presence of cortisol at night, a reduced morning-cortisol release makes it harder for us to wake up and this makes mornings particularly difficult for stressed people.

To evoke a response, we drink coffee and crave both carbohydrates and sugary foods. Carbs help to reduce cortisol levels, so we crave them during stressful periods.

 

We crave sugar afterwards, we deserve it, we got through a stressful day, we feel sorry for ourselves.

 

To make matters worse, when we eat faster releasing carbohydrates (such as bread and pasta) we feel lethargic and sluggish.

Next, we start our commute, which is often a stressful period whether driving or taking public transport. In London and New York transport systems, commute stations are surrounding by pastry and coffee shops, an easy solution to our evening meal (and unbeknownst to us), stress-fuelled sugar crash.

We get home, feeling awful about a stressful day at work we grab a beer/glass of wine. We drink a couple while we prepare a carbohydrate heavy meal (in the microwave) or order a takeaway. We crave sugar afterwards, we deserve it, we got through a stressful day, we feel sorry for ourselves.

We might send a few emails at night, we believe we have to in order to keep up. We think of the stressful day ahead, we get a misplaced cortisol release, the cortisol inhibits melatonin release which helps induces sleep, we struggle to sleep, our mind races.

In response to a cycle of stress and poor sleep, guess what? The next morning our bodies release more cortisol to help get us through the day.

It starts all over again.

Rinse and repeat.

Groundhog day.

 

Happiness and purpose are more than just buzzwords, they have a considerable impact on our lives inside and outside our bodies.

 

A Workplace Whiplash

Our bodies are amazing machines. They adapt extremely quickly. They adapt to external and internal stimuli. Work is a major stimulus to our bodies, both good or bad.

As a business why should we care?

Cortisol causes longer term elevated blood glucose which undermines how we store sugar properly in our muscles.

There are a lot of cortisol fat receptors in the gut. On the back of greater cortisol we get an excess of fat around the gut and viscerally around the organs.

People who are overweight and lead a sedentary lifestyle are less productive and get sick more often.

 

Unhappy workers are less productive workers, and our customers recognise this unhappiness.

 

Their bodies are living in the fight or flight state so they not only create more cortisol and reduce their body’s capacity to manage glucose and sugar regulation, but they reduce their body’s capacity to release feel-good hormones like serotonin. So they are less happy, and unhappy workers are less productive workers, and our customers recognise this unhappiness.

Happiness and purpose are more than just buzzwords, they have a considerable impact on our lives inside and outside our bodies.

Our bodies have adapted to work…in either a positive or negative sense. As we explored in a previous Thursday Thought many numb the negative.

The workplace was designed around practices that are now archaic. The education system was designed to create obedient, lemming-like workers. Neither have evolved that much. Our minds know there is a better option and this has created a “workplace whiplash”, where there is a mismatch in our heartfelt desires and our workplace deliveries.

We are evolving, so too must the workplace.

 

What Can We Do?

The workplace must increasingly cater to a sense of purpose.

Employees must understand implicitly their role in the greater organisational purpose.

Employees must feel they are part of something greater than their pay cheque.

Workplaces must become skilled in soft skills.

Office bullies must be exposed and ejected.

Machiavellian politics must be revealed and rejected.

Workplaces must adapt to the needs of the world as it is today — flexible not fixed.

Outcomes must replace outputs.

Quality time must replace Facetime.

Education must become part of the working day.

Employee communications must be limited to the office hours so we can turn off and charge up for the next day.

Boards of directors must direct not punish.

We must manage energy, not time.

And finally, Managers must become leaders.

 

About the Author

Aidan Mc Cullen is a Senior Consultant with Flow Consulting Group specialising in digital transformation, innovation, culture and leadership. He works with organisations to radically change how they interact and engage with each other. Aidan currently lectures on Emerging Technology Trends in Trinity College Business School, Dublin.  

Aidan is also the host and founder of the Global Innovation Show, broadcast on RTE and listened to all over the globe, and writer of The Thursday Thought weekly blog. 

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