Discussion of work-life balance assumes a neat distinction between the two – a distinction which rarely exists in the real world. New research* from China sheds more light on the complicated relationship between the home and workplace by examining job stress, eating habits and sleep.

At the heart of the matter is self-regulation – our ability to control naturally occurring emotions, behavior and mental states. Self-regulation is necessary not only to get work done, but also to ensure we make good decisions about our health. However, the ability to self-regulate is a resource that, like all resources, is finite and subject to depletion.

The researchers looked at how stressful aspects of work, including high degrees of effort required at work and stressful interactions with customers, could alter eating behaviors. They expected that work stress would create negative mood, in turn promoting the consumption of unhealthy food to generate countervailing pleasant feelings. They also hypothesized that high job demands would deplete the self-regulatory resources people employ when making decisions about food.

This hasn’t always been a problem. Throughout most of human history, food high in sugar and fat was hard to come by – so hard, in fact, that we evolved a physiological response that encourages us to pig out should we happen upon such a calorific bounty. But now such foods proliferate, it consumes self-regulatory resources simply to avoid over-consuming. When these resources are already depleted after a hard day’s work, it makes it even more difficult to choose a salad over a pizza. 

The mechanism to replenish these resources is simple enough, yet often taken for granted – sleep. But it’s not the quantity so much as the quality that is important in giving us the vigor to take on the challenges of a work day and still make smart decisions about dinner. In particular, sleep is at its most beneficial when you fall asleep quickly and stay asleep throughout the night.

The interactions between sleep stress and eating were investigated in two studies of 235 workers at five Chinese information technology companies and a telecommunications company. To identify the patterns in their behavior, they were asked to keep a diary of their sleep quality, job demands and eating habits over several weeks. While measures of sleep and stress proved reasonably transferable from existing Western tools, the definitions of healthy and unhealthy foods needed to be adapted for China by removing such items as mayonnaise, cheese and cereal and adding in nuts and seeds. Only those that were clearly healthy or unhealthy were included. 

The results showed that indeed, greater work stress in the morning resulted in less healthy, and more unhealthy, food consumption in the evening. The studies also found that sleep helped reduce the amount of unhealthy food consumed, especially when job stress was high. However, more sleep did nothing to encourage consumption of healthy foods, which the authors put down to the fact that eating healthily requires even more self-regulatory resources than simply avoiding unhealthy foods. Stress simply consumed too much of these resources so that even sleep wasn’t enough to build them up.

On the bright side, the study showed that people can actually handle a certain degree of stress before it does any damage. At low to middle levels of stress, which could in fact be motivating, individuals weren’t that much more inclined to eat unhealthily, regardless of sleep quality (see chart).

What does this mean for companies and their employees? For one thing, companies may want to reconsider any food-related perks they offer to their staff, as they could be doing more harm than good. In high-stress environments, the availability of unhealthy food may make people feel better in the short-term, but does nothing to address the long-term issues making their jobs unpleasant.

When it comes to sleep, there is only so much a company can do, although some have tried to introduce comfortable places to nap. And while getting a good night’s sleep can help reduce the impact of work stress, it wasn’t enough to overcome all the negative effects of work stress.

So it comes back to individuals and their supervisors finding the right level of stress to motivate without leading to burn-out, a balance at least as challenging to find as that between life and work.


* Liu, Y., Song, Y., Koopmann, J., Wang, M., Chang, C.-H. (D.), & Shi, J. (2017). Eating your feelings? Testing a model of employees’ work-related stressors, sleep quality, and unhealthy eating. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(8), 1237-1258.




Healthy food items


Green vegetables

Other types of vegetables such as carrots and cauliflower

Whole grain rice

Nuts or seeds

Low-fat dairy products

Tofu or beans

Fish (other than fried)


Unhealthy food items

Salty snacks such as potato chips

Processed meat products (e.g., ham and sausage)

American-style hamburger

Fried food (e.g., fried chicken, fried fish, and Chinese donuts)

Sweet snacks (e.g., chocolate, candy, ice-cream, and pastry)

Sodas or sugary drinks (e.g., Coke, Pepsi, and iced tea)