November 08, 2010

Flexible working arrangements – will it make us fat or skinny?

Work whenever and wherever you want. The days are over when we worked a standard 8 hours per day, from 9 till 5. Here in the Netherlands, this is the 'Week of the flexible working arrangements' (November 8 till 14), or in Dutch: ‘Het Nieuwe Werken’. 

More freedom, flexibility and responsibility. That sounds great, but what will be the influence on our eating habits? Will it make us fat or skinny? Think about it. The traditional office job is relatively structured and predictable. Coffee in the morning, lunch around noon in the canteen, and then back to work behind your desk. Compare this to flexible working conditions. Full of temptations at first sight. Work anywhere you want, at Starbucks for example. After all, Starbucks provides you with 'a great digital experience to go with your great cup of coffee'. But at the same time, they also provide you with a wide range of temptations, such as Frappucchinos, Iced Lemon Pound Cake (my favorite!) and Double Chocolate Brownies. Working at home may also lead to overeating as you get easily drawn to your kitchen cabinet and fridge, filled with indulgent snacks and leftovers. And luckily there are no colleagues looking over your shoulder saying: 'Hey, again enjoying a candy bar?’  Seeing food means eating food. Visibility and convenience are the two main influencers of how much we eat. Remember the famous candy jar experiment of Brian Wansink. Brian placed candy jars full with chocolates at office workers' desks. After a month, the jar was moved six feet away. The workers ate five more candies daily (about 125 calories) when the jar was nearby. A typical example of "Mindless eating".

Fortunately, a quick look at the scientific literature paints a much more positive picture. Flexible working arrangements have a positive impact on a variety of outcomes. Diane Halpern found that employees with time-flexible work policies reported less stress and higher levels of commitment to their employer. Another study in 2007 found that if employees saw their work schedules as flexible, they were more likely to exercise, eat well and get the sleep they need. It is well-known that stress is a trigger to overeat. Too much stress undermines people's ability to control their desires and hence their body weight. In sum, good news for the 24-7 world that we live in nowadays. A better work-life balance means less stress for you, your family and your colleagues. And probably less dieting.
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