Women hit harder by those long days at work

Both sexes consume less alcohol with long workdays

Long hours at work have a greater negative impact on women than men, making them more likely to smoke, drink coffee, and eat unhealthy food, a British research team says.

"Women who work long hours eat more high-fat and high-sugar snacks, exercise less, drink more caffeine, and, if smokers, smoke more than their male colleagues," says Daryl O'Connor, PhD, a researcher at Britain's Leeds University who led the study. Working long hours has no negative impact on men's exercise, caffeine intake or smoking, the study shows.

"The one clear positive impact of working long hours for both sexes is that alcohol consumption is reduced," O'Connor adds.

The findings on the effects of long working hours are part of a broader study of the effects of stress on eating habits. (The report, "'Effects of stress on eating behaviour: An integrated approach," is available at www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk.)

Stress causes people to opt for unhealthy high-fat and high-sugar snacks rather than healthier foods, O'Connor says, and people under stress tend to eat less than usual at meals, cutting their intake of vegetables and increasing their consumption of fatty, sugary snacks.

Researchers examined the stress caused by minor events, labeled "hassles," both in and outside work, including an argument with a colleague or friend, a meeting with a boss, giving a presentation at work, missing a deadline, or even losing keys. Findings show that those who experienced one or more such hassles during the day reported consuming significantly more between-meal snacks than usual but fewer portions of vegetables — though not fruit — and a smaller main meal.

Of the different types of stressors, it is mental rather than physical stress that leads people to snack, O'Connor's team reports. Researchers categorized daily hassles into four types: ego-threatening (e.g., giving a presentation); interpersonal (having an argument); work-related (a meeting with the boss); and physical (a severe headache or feeling in danger). And while ego-threatening, interpersonal, and work-related hassles lead people to snack more, physical stressors actually lead people to snack less.

"Our findings are disturbing in that they show stress produces harmful changes in diet and leads to unhealthy eating behaviors," says O'Connor. "An overwhelming body of evidence shows the importance of maintaining a balanced diet… yet our study points to a clear link between stress and a tendency to eat more unhealthy snacks and consume fewer vegetables and less of a balanced main meal."