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Obesity/overweight and the role of working conditions: a qualitative, participatory investigation.

Champagne N; Abreu M; Nobrega S; Goldstein-Gelb M; Montano M; Lopez I; Arevalo J; Bruce S; Punnett L
Boston, MA: Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH), 2012 Nov; :1-28
The rising rates of obesity in the U.S. are generating significant concern, and a variety of efforts are underway to slow the trend. Most interventions target individual behaviors related to weight gain (diet and physical activity), and the impact of the work environment on obesity has been under-appreciated to date. Although the work environment has been recognized as an important factor for other health and safety outcomes, the impact of working conditions on overweight and obesity has been largely ignored. Additionally, with 3.8 million workers earning at or below the federal minimum wage and 19.4% of those workers spending 40 hours or more per week on the job, it is imperative to examine the impact of work on health and weight, especially for low-income workers, given the socioeconomic disparities that exist in rates of obesity in the United States. This study investigated whether lower-income workers perceived any factors in the workplace that have an effect on their weight status. The research was carried out through a community partnership between University researchers and worker leaders from organizations representing lower income workers. Initially, anecdotes shared by lower income workers with worker advocacy organizations spurred the generation of this study. Ninety-two low-wage Latino and Black or African American workers contributed to the study. Eight focus groups were conducted with a total of 63 workers in the Greater Boston area, both male and female, Latino and Black or African American. Another four workers participated in indepth interviews to augment the results of the focus groups. Three additional stakeholder meetings were conducted with 25 low-wage workers to review and comment on the preliminary findings of the study and seek additional input on recommendations. Participants came from a variety of industries, including housekeeping/cleaning, restaurant/food service, construction, healthcare/human services, and manufacturing. They described a range of factors influencing their diet, exercise, and body weight - notably, time pressure, psychological stress, and decreased ability to exercise after injury or illness (i.e., depression). These findings are supported by additional in-depth interviews with lower-income workers, examination of national data, and a review of existing scientific literature. These combined inputs provide a multifaceted picture of the role of working conditions in the development of overweight/obesity among lower-income workers. Significance Obesity is widely recognized as a significant public health issue, contributing to numerous preventable chronic diseases including heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7%) are obese.2 Additionally, it is well established that overweight and obesity rates are disproportionately higher for lower-income individuals, and in particular, lower income Black or African Americans and Latino Americans. While it is recognized that overweight and obesity disproportionately affect lower-income individuals, most studies have focused upon how increased income facilitates greater access to healthier lifestyles (ability to afford healthier foods, live in safer neighborhoods with more access to recreational spaces, etc.). Other studies show sedentary jobs as a contributing factor to overweight and obesity. However, this is often not the experience of lower income workers. These workers are more likely involved in physically demanding work, and are often too fatigued or debilitated to enjoy physical activity in their leisure time. As a result, the programs initiated to date tend to focus on encouraging individuals to increase physical activity either before work (such as walk-to-work programs), or during work (such as providing treadmills or encouraging the use of stairs). Other interventions focus on educating workers about nutrition and healthy eating habits. However, these traditional interventions fail to address the factors influencing obesity in the workplace, as experienced by the millions of lowincome workers in the United States. The present study aims to explore how working conditions faced by lower-income workers affect weight status, a question not previously addressed in the literature.
Total-Worker-Health; Weight-factors; Behavior-patterns; Behavior; Sociological-factors; Racial-factors; Housekeeping-personnel; Food-services; Construction-industry; Construction-workers; Health-care; Health-care-personnel; Psychological-stress
Publication Date
Document Type
Funding Type
Cooperative Agreement
Fiscal Year
Identifying No.
Cooperative-Agreement-Number-U19-OH-008857; B20121218C
Priority Area
Healthcare and Social Assistance
Source Name
Obesity/overweight and the role of working conditions: a qualitative, participatory investigation
Performing Organization
University of Massachusetts, Lowell
Page last reviewed: September 2, 2020
Content source: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Education and Information Division