Helping employees to make the right health choices

Food, sleep and exercise – why your employees need all three to be successful at work

Vhi Rebalance

Employers can use the workplace as a springboard for their employees’ health and wellbeing. Photograph: Getty Images


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 same study also found that 77 per cent of all productivity losses were due to health-related reasons with the overall cost coming in at between two and three times more than the overall annual healthcare bill for the companies involved.

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.

Other research carried out in the US this year has also found that exercising on workdays can positively impact employees’ attitude and experience at work. These results suggest that people who exercise on workdays managed time better and thought they were more productive. They also reported greater satisfaction at the end of the working day, most likely because the day had gone better than it might have done had they not exercised.

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. “There are a few things employers can do and I see many organisations taking action in this area. 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. 

Research carried out in the US found that exercising on workdays can positively impact employees’ attitude and experience at work. Photograph: Getty Images
Research carried out in the US found that exercising on workdays can positively impact employees’ attitude and experience at work. Photograph: Getty Images

The first and most obvious area where employers can play a role is food and nutrition. Offering the right food and nutrition choices in canteens can help employees perform at their best throughout the day.

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. This is because our brains and bodies need the right fuel to work at their best. 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. Our bodies require these to work but can’t make them, we have to get them 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 walnut oil. We are fortunate in this country that grass-fed beef is another good source of omega-3 oils.

Energy isn’t the only thing people need to work at their best. 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.

“The workplace is a great environment to provide transferrable skills and knowledge to employees”, says Coleman. It’s all very well for employers to say what employees can’t do, and what they shouldn’t do but they have to be more positive about what employees can do. Employers can use the workplace as a springboard for their employees’ health and wellbeing. It’s about making the health choice the easy choice.”

That goes right down to the free food offered in some workplaces. “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. Maybe we can learn from the sugar tax and how it has operated in other countries. Poor nutrition leads to increased absenteeism and healthcare costs and there is a much greater level of awareness of that among employers now.”

Free fruit in the workplace is a great reward for employees making the healthy decision. Photograph: Getty Images
Free fruit in the workplace is a great reward for employees making the healthy decision. Photograph: Getty Images

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 explains. “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.”

Indeed, sleep is very important when it comes to workplace performance and absenteeism. Research has shown that adults over 45 years, who sleep less than 6 hours a night, are twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke than someone who sleeps 7.5 hours a night. This is directly linked to blood pressure and just one night of poor sleep has been found to increase a person's blood pressure. The light headedness, blurred vision, and fainting which can be associated with hypertension means that the affected employees could pose a safety risk. 

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.

“We are becoming more aware of how our lives and health are impacted by sleep”, says Coleman.  “There is not one aspect of our health that doesn’t suffer as a result of sleep deficit. The benefits of a good night’s sleep are huge.”

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”, Coleman points out. “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.”

A note from Vhi about Rebalance

We know that when employees nurture both body and mind it can lead to happier employees and better business results. That’s why our health and wellbeing programme is focused on engaging  employees in a culture of wellbeing both in work and at home.

Our approach at Vhi is holistic and proactive, with programmes specifically designed to meet each employee’s needs. We offer services which are accessible by all, sustainable in everyday life and enjoyable too.

Wellbeing with Vhi, is all about two pillars; body and mind. In fact, the old adage of healthy body, healthy mind is more relevant today than ever as the two largest categories of work-related illness are musculoskeletal disorders and stress, anxiety and depression.

Our programmes are accessible to all (not just the superfit), which in turn leads to greater engagement and sustainability. Choose from our range of programmes, including trending topics such as diet and nutrition, fitness and emotional wellbeing.

If you’d like to find out more about Vhi Rebalance call 056 7775800 or visit our website to arrange for one of the Vhi team to get in contact with you.