Stress management, healthy eating and your performance at work

Stress is one of the biggest challenges to modern businesses and one of the most common reasons for workplace absences.

The British Safety Council reported that 15.4 million working days were lost in 2017/18 due to stress and anxiety at work, and stress was, at least in part, responsible for 43% of the working days lost due to ill health. Furthermore, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, says that workplace stress adversely affects 22% of workers across the EU, and that up to 60% of lost working days may be, at least partially, due to stress.

The statistics do vary, but the overall message is clear: stress at work is a common problem, affecting absenteeism, employee turnover, performance at work, and productivity. Too much stress is bad news for employees and employers alike. So what can be done to improve the situation?

The main reasons for stress at work were cited as lack of control, too much work, too much pressure, too much responsibility, lack of management support, company restructuring, conflicts with others, and lack of clarity among anxious staff, about what exactly, they were supposed to be doing.

Some of these things can be addressed by better communication or improved processes, but as an employee, there are also things you can do, to maximise your performance and productivity, helping you to keep on top of your workload.

Good nutrition leads to increased productivity

You might be surprised to learn that what you eat can have a big impact on your productivity at work. Your food choices affect your energy levels, alertness, and your ability to concentrate.

Many people use stimulants for a morning boost, but caffeinated drinks, sugary snacks, and cigarettes only create a short adrenaline rush which drops when the stimulant wears off, resulting in a yoyo effect that many people perpetuate throughout the day.

For optimal performance at work, you need sustained blood sugar levels for energy, alertness, and good concentration. You’ll be more productive if you eat healthy foods like fruit, salad, vegetables, nuts and pulses. Wholegrains are better than refined flour. These foods provide sustained energy, and glucose to the brain, not just in short rushes, but slowly, to keep you performing optimally all day.

Popular lunchtime foods like white sandwiches, noodles, or sugary snacks and drinks can actually increase your stress levels. They cause peaks and troughs in your blood sugar and insulin levels, making you feel energised initially, but then you become tired and distracted again quite quickly.

There’s another benefit in taking time out at lunchtime to eat properly and relax (rather than downing a Mars bar during a meeting). The rest period will leave you feeling calm, refreshed, and more alert. After a break, you’ll be better prepared mentally, to focus on achieving your afternoon’s objectives.

Snacking on fruit or nuts between meals can help to sustain energy levels and keep your mind alert too. The British Journal of Health Psychology published a study in 2015, showing that people who ate more fruit and vegetables were more engaged, creative, and happier than those who did not. It’s thought this is because fruits and vegetables are rich in nutrients, which improve your memory, and your mood, so you feel more able to cope with the workload. The nutrients in fruits and vegetables also support dopamine production, which makes you more curious, motivated, and engaged.

The food choices you make, really can make the difference between achieving your potential at work, and feeling sluggish, stressed and demoralised. So take a bag of fruit into the office at the start of every new week. Eat a healthy breakfast, and choose healthy meals. Take a lunchtime break, so you’re refreshed when you return to work in the afternoon, and make healthy eating easy, by planning ahead and perhaps taking a healthy lunch to work with you.

How the body responds to stress

We have evolved to respond to stress as a life or death situation – and in the short term it leads to strength and quick thinking, but in the long term, persistent stress wears you down and eventually leads to burn out.

Your body responds to stress with adrenaline, an increased heart rate, and bursts of energy, but it also suppresses normal bodily functions, such as immunity, repair and rejuvenation. So it’s important that high stress levels don’t perpetuate day after day, week after week, year after year. Too much stress can lead to a loss of energy, muddled thinking, irritability, and poor sleep.

Stress increases your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, and a whole host of other illnesses. It affects not only people’s work lives, but their homes lives, and their physical health too. A study by Harvard and Stanford Universities said that prolonged stress at work can reduce your lifespan by up to three years.

It’s a difficult time for many businesses, with managers often forced to make difficult cost-cutting decisions to balance the books and keep the company trading, in an environment of serious global economic challenges. But if you eat nutritious foods and make sensible lifestyle decisions, you can ameliorate some of the potential stresses of the modern workplace.

Tips to manage stress

Reduce or eliminate stressors including: sugar, caffeinated drinks, cigarettes and alcohol. If giving up stimulants gives you headaches and makes you feel tired and nauseous, it’s because they are damaging your health. It’s very difficult to cut out sugar in one go, so a good idea is to reduce the sugar content of your diet slowly and start to enjoy natural fruits instead of sugary deserts.

To maximise your energy, alertness and zest for life, eat whole foods that provide sustained energy, good nutrition, and help to alleviate stress. These include fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds. These foods will provide energy without causing surges in your blood sugar levels. Research has shown that eating some protein with your complex carbohydrates supports your adrenal glands by reducing the stimulation of the stress hormone, cortisol. So have some oily fish or nuts with your meal.

Don’t skip meals or eat junk food on your way to a meeting. Take at least 20 minutes out of your working day, and eat something nourishing to support you through the afternoon. If you’re hungry between meals, snack on fruit and nuts because they provide healthy nutrients to keep you alert and motivated, as well as providing energy.

Optimise your intake of essential fatty acids, which are necessary for a healthy mind, and help you to concentrate. Eating walnuts, linseed, or oily fish, rich in omega 3 oils, provides clarity of thought. Antioxidant-rich fruits, berries and green tea are good brain foods too. They will help you get through your workload quickly and efficiently.

The body finds protein hard to digest, so go easy on the animal products.Protein uses more energy, and takes longer to digest than carbohydrates. Try to increase the fruit and vegetables in your diet because they are easy to digest and help you recover from the physical affects of stress on the body.

Extreme exercise can make your stress worse, and stimulate cortisol production (a stress hormone), but modest exercise can help you work through your frustrations and feel better. Joining an exercise class after work or walking for half an hour can help you to mentally break away from the stressors of the day and enjoy your free time.

Relaxation exercises such as joining a yoga class or meditating regularly can help you relax. A study published in Psychiatry Research said that meditation creates beneficial changes in brain structure. Participants who meditated for 27 minutes each day, showed decreased grey-matter density in the amygdale (a part of the brain associated with stress), indicating lower stress levels than the control group. Some employers run guided meditation sessions at lunchtime. Consider joining yours if the option exists.

Humour improves blood circulation, boosts the immune system, and suppresses stress hormones. Laughter can also release endorphins which make you feel good. So when you’re at work, try to see the funny side in a stressful situation and it will help you get through the day.

Deep breathing can energise the body and clear the mind. We only use one third of our lung capacity and oxygen aids clarity of thought. So take some deep breaths if you’re feeling the pressure – the solution may come more easily.

To ensure you’re refreshed for work in the morning, prepare yourself for a good night’s sleep, by relaxing before bed. Some people find relaxing music helps them unwind. Don’t eat too late, as this can disturb your sleep. Ideally you shouldn’t eat for three hours before bed time.

Susie Kearley is a freelance journalist and a qualified nutritionist writing regularly for a variety of publications on health and nutrition.

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