Job-loss associated with weight gain – but diet and physical activity may not be the reason

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Photo: JJ Ellison

Job-loss is associated with a more weight gain in working UK adults, according to new CEDAR research, but changes in smoking, diet and physical activity did not explain the weight gained. However, loss of sleep due to worry may be a factor, and the behavioural and psychosocial impacts of job-loss need to be further explored.

Safe and secure employment is recognised as an important factor influencing population health. Compared to those in work, people who are unemployed tend to be less healthy and have less healthy behaviours including smoking, alcohol use and physical inactivity. Unemployment has also been linked to overweight and obesity, particularly in women. However little is known about how loss of employment is associated with changes in body weight, or the behaviours that contribute to weight gain.  In a new paper published in Social Science and Medicine, CEDAR investigators studied working UK adults from two longitudinal surveys to explore weight change in relation to transitions in employment.

The researchers used a population-based cohort study (EPIC-Norfolk) and a longitudinal nationwide panel (British Household Panel Survey). They found that becoming unemployed was associated with significantly more weight gain compared to adults who either stayed in employment or retired. This association was more pronounced in women than in men. Moreover, the study found that job loss was associated with a sharp and significant increase in sleep-loss, and a deterioration of a number of indicators of psychosocial well-being.

The results strengthen evidence for a causal link between unemployment and higher body weight. The work fits within a broader literature showing that higher body weight and weight gain are associated with low socioeconomic status and financial hardship. While the behavioural pathways linking unemployment to weight gain are not yet identified, policymakers should be minded to consider the adverse impacts of job loss on both physical and mental health when developing programmes to support the unemployed.