Grabbing a midmorning donut as an energy boost no longer flies. Here’s how to stay healthy in the workplace.
Anyone who has worked in an office can relate to drinking too much coffee, sitting hunched over a computer all day, and getting up only to wander to the kitchen and dig into the sugary leftovers to power through the day.
Or at least we tell ourselves that a cream-filled donut will help us power through. Those sweet snacks might seem like a good idea at the time, but they can seriously undermine our health and well-being.
Wellness-boosting efforts—exercise, stress reduction, and healthy eating—should not be abandoned upon entering the revolving office door. Making healthier decisions during the workday can really pay off. “So much of our time is spent at work,” says Jennifer Benz, CEO and founder of Benz Communications, a San Francisco boutique firm that creates strategic communications and marketing campaigns related to employee benefits. “If work isn’t supporting our health, then it’s an uphill battle.”
Start by taking a look at the common mistakes that might be damaging your overall health. When you become intentional about correcting them, you’ll feel less stressed, more energetic, stronger, and healthier both at work and outside the office.
Mistake #1: A frantic morning
Many of our mornings follow one of two patterns: Press snooze, sleep to the last minute, jump out of bed, skip breakfast, gulp down some coffee, and rush to the car. Or get up at 4 a.m., go straight to the computer, and squeeze in a few extra hours of intense work before heading to the office. Both scenarios are big mistakes, according to Katie Bressack, a board-certified holistic health coach and corporate wellness coach. “If you are racing around in the morning, you’ve already exhausted yourself before you’ve even gotten to work,” she says.
Solution: To be productive at work, we need to start the day feeling calm and grounded. Upon waking, resist the temptation to jump onto your electronic device. Take a few minutes to make the transition from slumber into your day. Bressack advises meditating, mindful breathing, stretching, or setting an intention for the day. Never skip breakfast; it’s still the most important meal. If you don’t have time to make breakfast in the morning, prepare it the night before. Extend a relaxed mind-set to your commute: while you drive, walk, or travel on public transportation, take five deep breaths in, and then five deep breaths out, and repeat for 10 minutes.
Mistake #2: Dehydration
Once we get to the office, it’s easy to slip into nonstop work mode. Even a trip to the water cooler can seem like wasted time. But when we don’t drink enough water, our bodies get dehydrated, and even mild dehydration can cause fatigue. “Water helps the body function optimally,” says Bressack. Drinking plenty of water flushes toxins, carries nutrients to cells, and provides moisture for the ears, nose, and throat tissues.
Solution: Make sure that you drink about nine eight-ounce glasses of fluid a day (preferably water), an amount recommended by the Institute of Medicine. If drinking fluids doesn’t come naturally, set an alarm on your computer that pops up every hour as a reminder. A bonus to staying hydrated? You’ll have to get up more often to go to the bathroom, which is a great way to move and stretch throughout the day.
Mistake #3: Poor time management
Stress is a major cause of health problems, including heart disease, depression, and digestive problems. While some stress at work is inevitable, it’s important to minimize the stress that comes from feeling overworked and overwhelmed. “I’m a big believer in having good processes and systems for managing tasks, so you can relax when you aren’t working,” says Benz.
Solution: There are hundreds of ways to manage your time well, from good old-fashioned paper-and-pencil lists to sophisticated project management software. Benz recommends the book Getting Things Done, which she says can help you create an intentional, disciplined way of tracking all of your short- and long-term priorities. “Once you have a system set up and it works for you, it gives you peace of mind and helps you tune out work when you leave the office.”
Mistake #4: The wrong kind of lunch
As the main meal we eat during work (hopefully!), lunch has the potential to give us a boost of steady energy and nourishment. When we don’t eat enough at lunch, or don’t eat the right foods, we risk setting ourselves up for unhealthy afternoon snacking or a blood sugar crash.
Solution: The first rule of lunch is preparation. Pack up your leftovers from dinner, fix lunch the night before, or go grocery shopping and stock your work fridge with healthy options like salad fixings, hummus, and vegetables. Whatever your method of preparation, make sure it includes healthy fats like walnuts and avocados to help keep your brain focused. Of course, never skip lunch. And make sure that you eat enough so you aren’t hungry a few hours later, which can make the office candy bowl that much more tempting.
Keep in mind, as well, that eating at your desk is a big no-no for several reasons. First, you will likely be multitasking, which can lead to mindless overeating. Secondly, you’ll be distracted with work tasks, so you won’t get as much enjoyment from your meal. And finally, eating at your desk doesn’t give your body and mind the midday break it needs to rejuvenate and reenergize.
Mistake #5: Consuming too much caffeine
It’s easy to justify overindulging in your favorite caffeinated beverage. Your energy is lagging after lunch, so you reach for a Diet Coke, or you want a jolt for a big meeting, so you refill your coffee cup—again. We know by now, however, that drinking too much diet soda and coffee throughout the day isn’t good for you. Heavy caffeine use can cause insomnia, nervousness, muscle tremors, fast heartbeat, an upset stomach, and irritability. All of this can disrupt your sleep, creating a relentless cycle of sleeplessness, fatigue, and then more coffee drinking.
In addition to its caffeine content, diet soda creates other problems. “It’s worse than regular soda because it has chemicals that cause weight gain, headaches, and sugar cravings,” says Bressack, who adds that many women are addicted to diet soda. “We are tricked by marketing that it’s better for us [than regular soda]. But it’s actually harmful and causes an imbalance in our body.”
Solution: Caffeine consumption is very personal; some people get jittery from just one cup of coffee. But according to the Mayo Clinic, up to 400 milligrams (about four cups of brewed coffee per day) appears to be a safe amount for adults. Start to curb your caffeine habit. When you want to reach for a cup of coffee or a soda, grab some decaf or herbal tea instead. If you drink caffeinated tea, cut down on the brew time. The ideal beverage is water: add a squeeze of lemon or a drop of juice for a flavor boost.
Mistake #6: Too much sitting
We’ve all been there. We have too much to do in one day, so we stay glued to our desk. By the end of the day, we feel frazzled and fried, unable to concentrate, exhausted, and burned out. Sitting doesn’t just make you tired. It’s been linked to obesity, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
You might think that getting up to stretch will reduce your productivity. But leaving your office chair is important, not only for your productivity but also for your energy level and overall health.
Solution: Experts say you should get up at least once an hour to give your body a break from sitting. At the very least, get up and stretch your arms, neck, and legs. Lean over in your chair to touch your toes, or do a few shoulder rolls. Once a day, leave your space and go for a 10-minute walk or do a few yoga stretches.
Think about ways you can incorporate standing and moving into your day, whether taking phone calls while standing up or having a walking meeting with a colleague. Or consider requesting a standing desk.
Mistake #7: Not taking advantage of your company’s wellness programs
Some forward-thinking companies have implemented wellness programs that offer group exercise, wellness workshops, and health classes. “Many people leave money and opportunities on the table,” says Benz. “Employers have good intentions with those programs. They are typically underutilized, even though they have a lot of value.”
Solution: Call your human resources representative to find out what your company offers, which could include on-site classes, discounts to a wellness program like an online health tool, products and services available through a health plan, or an employee assistance plan that provides counseling, referrals, child care, or help with legal issues. The rep can also tell you about the company’s health savings accounts and high-deductible health plans.
Mistake #8: Going it alone
There is strength in numbers. The more you surround yourself with people who have similar health goals, such as losing weight or reducing stress, the more likely you’ll have success. A workout buddy at work can support your efforts, keep you motivated, pry you out of your office chair when you are convinced you don’t have time to exercise—and cheer you on when you need it.
Solution: Ask a colleague who has similar goals to join you in a consistent routine. Make a commitment to go for a 10-minute walk each day and encourage each other to stick to it. Start a lunchtime running club, meditation group, or walking session if none is available. And have fun: when you reach your wellness goals, reward yourself with a low-fat decaf latte or a night at the movies.
Mistake #9: Always being available
In this hectic 24/7 world, our personal time is slowly eroding. We are obsessive about checking our email and are constantly multitasking, causing mental fatigue and unnecessary stress.
Solution: When you need to focus on a task, close your email for an hour or two. If you need to take a break, leave your phone at your desk. Find ways to guard your time within the confines of your work responsibilities. Don’t answer emails on the weekend, unless it’s an emergency: emails can usually wait. By creating these boundaries, you will vastly improve your overall health and well-being and give your mind and body a chance to unwind.
Mistake #10: Nibbling goodies
It’s an inevitable part of office life. Walk into the kitchen, and you might find yesterday’s birthday cupcakes, a box of donuts, or the bagels from a morning meeting. Stroll down the hall, and there’s the candy bowl. Open your drawer, and you spy the chocolate bar you bought from a coworker to support her kid’s fundraiser. Eating these sugary treats gives you an initial boost, but soon thereafter, it takes your blood sugar on a wild ride, ultimately leaving you tired and unproductive.
Solution: When you feel tempted, pass by the candy jar and choose a healthy alternative: go for a walk, climb the stairs, or drink a big glass of water instead. And if you need to, visit your health buddy to get some support. DW
Nora Isaacs is a freelance health writer and editor who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.