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An employee’s guide to staying healthy while working

An employee’s guide to staying healthy while working

Most of us want to build and maintain healthy habits, but this can be a challenge with the demands of busy working lives. Healthy eating, sleep and exercise can end up taking a back seat as we sacrifice our health for job commitments or as a result of balancing the responsibilities of work and life.

Looking after our mental and physical health so that our body and brain function better can lead to greater productivity and happiness. Neglecting our health due to a poor work-life balance, for example, can have the opposite effect. Finding this balance can often be even harder when working from home, when the line between the end of the working day and the start of our down time can be distinctly blurry. So, it’s in the best interest of our minds, bodies, daily lives and future plans that we make room for some healthy habits.

Even for busy people in demanding roles, there are simple, practical ways you can maintain good physical and mental health. But, as the Harvard Business Review stated in its article What You Eat Affects Your Productivity: “It’s not awareness we need, it’s an action plan that makes healthy eating easier to accomplish.” As such, this article lists areas you can address and offers actionable advice to help you improve and maintain your health and well-being.

Nutrition: how to eat healthily at work during a busy working day

The challenge

It can be difficult to maintain a nutritious, balanced and healthy diet when you're busy at work. Quick and easy food is often not the healthiest, and many professionals end up eating fast food or starchy/fatty/unbalanced meals. The last thing many workers want to do when they get home is prepare a nutritious and balanced dinner. Only 26% of adults consume five or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day, while one in eight 21- to 34-year-olds eat fast food twice a day.

What you can do

  • Planning: meal preparation can help you eat more healthily. Planning your meals or preparing/cooking in bulk can help you avoid mealtime panic buying and manage portion control. By preparing healthy snacks, you can also reduce reliance on vending machines stocked with crisps, chocolate bars and carbonated drinks.
  • Eat regularly: make time for all three meals. Regulated eating habits help reduce energy crashes and bad moods, and the subsequent reliance on snacks and caffeine.
  • Set targets: decide on a realistic limit to the number of snacks, coffees and sugary drinks you want to consume. You might include healthy goals such as: eat one fruit/veg snack a day, drink one fruit juice a day, eat salad every other day.

The benefits

  • Immunity: a more balanced diet can help support your immune system and nourish the brain, which in turn can help support your mental health.
  • Improved sleep: Eating a balanced diet can help ensure a good night’s sleep, which supports cognitive function and productivity and can help improve your mood.

For more tips on how to eat healthily at work, read our article here. Or discover more about how your genes influence your optimal nutritional intake by clicking here

Exercise: get moving before, during or after work

The challenge

Women are less likely than men to do enough exercise, while around a third of adults in England are causing damage to their health due to not doing enough physical activity. Fitting exercise around your work schedule can be difficult — you may be tired when you get home from work or have other commitments, such as looking after children.

What you can do

  • Simple changes: swap out your morning drive for walking or cycling. You might choose to park a mile from your work and walk the rest of the way. Or plan activity breaks throughout your working day, if you’re working from home. Do some yoga, go for a run, pick up some weights or join a virtual training or exercise class. There are so many options.
  • Get creative: Joining a gym is an obvious solution, but if it’s not a viable option you can get moving at home. Do 20 minutes of exercise such as yoga or Pilates before your morning shower. If you can’t spare 20 minutes, try high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which takes only a few minutes — and experiments show it can deliver great results.
  • Mutual motivation: get a gym buddy to make exercise more enjoyable and encourage you to do it even if you’re feeling discouraged or distracted.
  • Get social: you could also join a sports team — this can be a healthy and sociable activity in which you will have to stick to a schedule rather than rely on self-motivation.

The benefits

Performance: research shows employees perform significantly better on days they exercise:

  • 72% displayed more efficient time management
  • 79% improved mental skills 
  • 74% better managed workloads.

Energy: exercise can help your energy levels. Although activity might tire you initially, in the long run you might find you have more energy overall.
Weight management: it can help you lose weight, quit smoking, reduce the risk of heart disease and balance blood sugar and insulin levels.
Mental well-being: It is not only great for the body, but many have found exercise helps improve their mental health too.

Click here for our guide to workday workouts: simple and easy exercises you can do to stay active in the workplace.

Water

The challenge

It can be easy to forget to drink water, especially if you sit at a desk all day — the lack of physical activity might not remind you that you’re getting dehydrated. The average person in the UK only drinks 1.7 litres of water per day, whereas women should be drinking around 2 litres and men 2.5 litres.

What you can do

  • For some people, remembering to drink water is the most difficult thing. If this is the case, fill up a jug in the morning and put it on your desk as a reminder to keep sipping!
  • If you don’t like drinking water, try adding slices of fruit or veg to your drink (lemon, orange, cucumber or ginger). This will change the flavour and add some extra vitamins.

The benefits

  • Multiple benefits: drinking water has many benefits, such as an increase in energy, clearer skin, maintaining a balance of bodily fluids, digestive system support and weight loss.
  • A simple step: it is possibly one of the easiest ways to stay healthy, requiring no extreme lifestyle changes.

Caffeine

The challenge

The average office worker drinks about 1,000 cups of coffee annually. While research has found caffeine to have positive effects on the brain, liver and kidneys, the psychoactive substance has also been linked to anxiety, restlessness and poor sleep. Consuming too much caffeine can dehydrate your body and cause issues with your digestive system. You may benefit from feeling alert to begin with, but withdrawal can then increase fatigue.

What you can do

  • Monitor intake: ensure you drink an appropriate amount. This will vary from person to person, but evidence indicates that between four and five cups of coffee per day may be the optimal amount.
  • Read the label: be aware of which drinks have caffeine in them, such as energy drinks, carbonated drinks and tea.
  • Go decaf: if your favourite drink has caffeine in it, try a decaf alternative.

The benefits

Multiple benefits: if you cut out or cut down on your caffeine intake you may:

  • Absorb more nutrients
  • Improve your sleep
  • Reduce anxiety (if present)
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Have fewer headaches
  • Have healthier teeth
  • Aid weight loss
  • Reduce risk of cardiac events.

Posture

The challenge

Both sedentary office work — whether you’re in a home office or a corporate environment — and manual labour can lead to issues with posture. If you don’t sit at your desk correctly, you can damage your back — what’s comfortable isn’t always what’s healthy. If you are routinely crouching down or lifting heavy items, you could find your back is in pain. Around 80% of people have back pain at some point in their lives.

What you can do

  • Sit straight: use this UK NHS guide to set up your desk and chair correctly. For example, your feet should be flat on the floor, wrists and forearms should be level with your desk and your computer should be at eye level.
  • Take a break: if your back starts to ache, take a break, walk to the kitchen or just head outside for a breath of fresh air.
  • Stand up: try a standing desk.
  • Health and safety: make sure you are only lifting as much as you can carry and doing so in the right way, and set time aside to have short breaks.

The benefits

  • Quality of life: avoid future back problems.
  • Pain management: reduce aches and pains.
  • Promote healing: good posture can help manage pain and healing of an injured back.

Read: 12 easy exercises for lower back pain.

Screen breaks

The challenge

Staring at a screen all day can cause health issues such as eyestrain, headaches and problems with your vision. Research suggests that more time spent indoors looking at things at close range, such as computer screens, has led to a rise in myopia (short-sightedness).

What you can do

  • Screen break: take breaks from looking at your screen, both computer and phone. These breaks depend on how often each individual requires them, but could be five to ten minutes every hour.
  • Anti-glare glasses: research blue-light-blocking glasses. These glasses filter out the blue light emitted from screens which is associated with these negative symptoms. Many of them are also anti-glare, which also helps with vision and eyestrain.
  • Employer duty: Employers working with display screen equipment (DSE) are obliged to help reduce the associated risks, including allowing breaks and changing workstations according to the employee’s needs.

The benefits

  • Cut the strain: by spending less time looking at screens you can reduce headaches and eyestrain.
  • Get moving: getting away from your desk can also help your posture and improve productivity when you return.

Cleanliness and hygiene

The challenge

Hygiene is important to staying healthy and avoiding illness. Office equipment — such as phones and keyboards — as well as fridges and door handles are all hotspots for germs. When a quarter of office workers don’t wash their hands after going to the toilet and there is 400 times more bacteria on the average desk than a toilet seat, it’s important to keep yourself and your surroundings clean.

What you can do

  • Employer duty: as an employer, you should implement a hygiene policy, as well as provide the infrastructure to support it. Set a cleaning rota, make sure you are stocked up on cleaning products and, if required, hire cleaners.
  • Hand hygiene: as an employee, you should regularly wash your hands when visiting the bathroom, preparing food and after eating food.
  • Tidy up: do your bit to keep shared spaces clean by cleaning your cups/crockery and wiping down surfaces you may have used.
  • Keep it clean: keep your desk clean – including your keyboard and mouse.

The benefits

  • Stop bacteria spreading: by stopping the spread of bacteria, you can reduce the chances of sickness from bacterial illnesses to contagious conditions.
  • Reduced illness and absence: cleaner workplaces mean reduced absences.

Working while sick

The challenge

Also known as presenteeism, working while sick is on the rise. With working stresses as prevalent as ever, many employees feel pressure to work even when they’re unwell. 18% of employers think a culture of fear of taking sick leave is the biggest cause of an unhealthy working environment, while 72% of businesses don’t think their employees take enough sick days.

What you can do

  • Recover: if you suspect you have contracted or developed an illness, such as a cold or the flu, consult your workplace policy but make sure you take the time to rest and make a call on whether to avoid your place of work. This is to protect your colleagues as well as hasten your recovery. You may be off work, but no one will benefit from catching what you have, and in the long run your company’s productivity may drop from multiple people being unwell.
  • Seek medical advice: see a doctor to receive proper medical attention and advice on medication and treatment.
  • Rest: even if your illness is not contagious, it might be best to take some time off to properly recover so you can get back to your most productive self as soon as possible. Consult your doctor to help you make an informed decision.

The benefits

  • Productivity: As health-related lost productivity is costing the UK’s economy $100bn per year, you will probably find that you’re more productive.
  • Better health for everyone: you won’t make your colleagues ill.

Managing stress

The challenge

Work can be stressful. As well as having an impact on your mental health, stress can affect your body too. Insomnia, headaches, heartburn, muscle tension, stomach ache, high blood pressure and high blood sugar can all be the result of too much stress. If you work from home, finding the time to switch off — or the discipline to end your working day — can also be difficult. But a lack of discipline can easily cause home workers to burn out. 

What you can do

Multiple options: it isn’t always easy to reduce stress, but there are things you can do to help:

The benefits

  • Multiple benefits: as stated, stress can really take its toll on your well-being. As well as reducing the risks of the above illnesses, you may find you are less irritable, have better memory, and have more energy during the day but sleep better at night. In the long run, you may find you are less at risk of developing certain diseases and have a longer life span.

For more information on workplace stress, read Combatting stress in the workplace: a strategy.

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