Helping employees to make the right health choices
Food, sleep and exercise – why your employees need all three to be successful at work
Poor dietary, exercise and sleep habits negatively impact employees’ work performance and can cost companies dearly in terms of lost productivity, absenteeism and healthcare costs.
A study published in the US journal Population Health Management showed that eating unhealthily was linked with a 66 per cent increased risk of loss of productivity, while a lack of physical exercise was linked with a 50 per cent increased risk of low productivity.
Interestingly, smoking was linked with a 28 per cent increased risk of loss of productivity.
The positive impact of exercise during the working day was highlighted by a US National Institutes of Health study, published earlier this year, which found that consistent exercise, even for just 15 minutes a day, can improve mental ability, with increased scores for focus and concentration, mental retention, speed of learning, and mental stamina among the key findings. The message is clear, providing opportunities for exercise during the working day and encouraging employees to take them offers real benefits.
Tom Coleman runs nutrition and health consultancy My Nutrition. He provides health and nutrition advice to a range of clients, as well as offering the service on behalf of Vhi to its clients.
When it comes to diet, exercise and sleep, however, much of it is concerned with what people do outside of work, and employers have to find ways of influencing that.
“I have seen a huge change and a paradigm shift in business.
“Many employers are incentivising health, and are providing creative and supportive environments in the workplace for employees to make health choices,” he says.
The first and most obvious area where employers can play a role is food and nutrition. Most of us are familiar with the “3pm slump” when energy levels crash to the floor and we feel an almost overwhelming desire to sleep. Low glycaemic index carbohydrates provide a steady supply of glucose to the brain and help us concentrate and learn.
Brown rice, quinoa, seasonal vegetables and sweet potato are among the best choices.
Another source of workplace fatigue is a lack of essential fatty acids which we must get from our food. The most effective are omega-3 fats, which occur naturally in oily fish. Other good sources include linseed oil, soya oil, pumpkin seeds, and grass-fed beef.
Mood is also important, and vitamin B6, B12 and folic acid help the brain use glucose to function as well as acting as mood regulators.
Low levels of B vitamins are also associated with increased stress, and they can be found in whole grains, dark green leafy vegetables, cheese, eggs, lean red meat, fish and nuts.
While there is evidence that people are making healthy choices in terms of the food they eat, employers sometimes unwittingly make it difficult. Canteens might use healthy ingredients but sometimes the food doesn’t taste great.
Some workplaces offer free food. “If you give people a choice between a donut and an apple most people will probably choose the donut. You have to reward people for making the healthy choice. Maybe look at it the other way and offer free fruit and charge for the donuts.”
Coleman also believes that employers need to get involved in other aspects of their employees’ personal lives such as sleep.
“I know that it can be seen as a bit invasive, but the overall welfare of their employees is an employer’s concern,” he says. “Sleep is a vitally important pillar of good health, for example, and we give talks to employees in client companies to give them advice on sleeping better at night.”
Research has shown that adults over 45 years who sleep less than six hours a night are twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke than someone who sleeps 7.5 hours a night. Poor sleep has also been linked to obesity, which is strongly associated with increased rates of absenteeism. This is because lack of sleep decreases levels of leptin, which inhibits hunger, and increases levels of ghrelin, which increases hunger. It can also lead to a loss of control of blood sugar levels, a precursor of diabetes, and has a detrimental effect on the immune system and we become less resistant to colds, flus and so on
The benefits for employers are clear in terms of reduced instances of minor illnesses, and, indeed, major health problems like obesity and diabetes.
“People think that the healthier choice is less exciting,” says Coleman. “If organisations can show their employees that the healthier choice made them feel better in themselves, allowed them to do more, and feel more energised, it could make a big difference.”
The first and most obvious area where employers can play a role is food and nutrition
Vhi Rebalance is a unique corporate wellness programme that helps to engage your business in a culture of wellbeing. It is designed to nurture both body and mind for better performance and happier employees. Search Vhi Rebalance