Employers want their workers to be healthy—both for insurance-cost and humane reasons—but aspects of those very jobs can make workers sick. A study published this month in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that workers who toiled for more than 40 hours per week or were exposed to a hostile work environment were significantly more likely to be obese.
Both of those are fairly intuitive—long hours at the office can make it hard to squeeze in exercise, and dealing with, shall we say, “a strong personality” all day can make it tempting to indulge in an extra helping of curly fries. (A more tragic explanation would be that people who are already obese are more likely to be harassed at work.)
But surprisingly, the researchers also found that certain industries and occupations in and of themselves correlate with higher obesity rates, even when controlling for the demographic makeup of those jobs.
The study authors used data from the 2010 National Health Interview Survey and connected it to self-reported weight and height information, as well as industry and occupation codes from the Census. For the hostility factor, they asked workers: “During the past 12 months were you threatened, bullied, or harassed by anyone while you were on the job?” (The obesity rate was 13 percent higher among those who said yes.)
Among the industry categories, manufacturing, healthcare/social assistance, transportation/warehousing, information, utilities, and public administration had the highest obesity rates:
Surprisingly, though, only the healthcare/social assistance and public administration industries had significantly higher-than-average obesity rates after the study authors adjusted for factors such as race, gender, and health behaviors like smoking.
"Public administration" means, roughly, bureaucrats in local, city, and federal offices. "Healthcare and social assistance" is anyone who works in a healthcare setting.
This is a bit odd. It’s plausible that sitting behind some far-flung city hall desk might lead to weight gain; it’s more shocking that people who work in doctors’ offices suffer from high rates of obesity even as their workplaces preach healthy living.
From there, the researchers looked at actual job descriptions:
Protective service workers—cops, security guards, and jailers—had the highest obesity prevalence, at more than 40 percent. But again, only engineers, office administrators, and social-service workers had unusually high obesity rates after adjusting for the demographic and other factors.
In some ways, this chart simply represents a broad swathe of a country where one in three people are obese: “Engineering” is a pretty wide-ranging description, and the "office and admin" field encompasses everyone from bank tellers to receptionists.
But again, the “social service workers” category includes people working in counseling, mental health, and child protection—a.k.a. healthcare.
So why are people in healthcare jobs portlier than others? The authors think it could be because certain characteristics of those jobs—their sedentariness, for example—contributes to obesity. Doctors might be on their feet all day, but their receptionists and billing staff are glued to their desks, licking envelopes and answering phones.
But the researchers also bring up an interesting data point: An earlier National Health Interview Survey found that the occupational category “health services,” which includes lower-wage clerical staff, had a much higher obesity rate than so-called “health diagnosing” jobs, which comprise higher-earning roles like doctors and nurse-practitioners.
So, as with most trends that seem to co-occur with obesity, it might all just come down to income. Your job might affect your body, but it’s how much you earn, not where you work, that ultimately matters.