It’s no secret that when employees show up to work at less than 100%, they’re less engaged and less productive. Presenteeism is more than just working while sick—contributing causes such as stress, mood disorders, or fatigue are often underreported and may not necessarily be related to work. Although sometimes difficult to quantify, poor on-the-job performance hurts the bottom line. One factor in this equation that businesses can control is a relatively common health behavior: diet.
A recent study of nearly 20,000 U.S. employees found that unhealthy eaters were 66% more likely to have high presenteeism than those who regularly ate whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. In addition, employees who said it was difficult for them to eat healthy at work had a 93% higher likelihood of presenteeism. These insights can help employers form targeted strategies aimed at reducing presenteeism. Here’s why encouraging your employees to make smart food choices can optimize productivity at work.
Food vs. function
A healthy diet could mean drastically different things to different people. One common misconception to be dispelled is that calories are calories: it doesn’t really matter what you eat if you stay under a prescribed daily caloric intake, right? According to this theory, 2,000 calories worth of chocolate chip cookies would be interchangeable with 2,000 calories of broccoli. Science (and common sense) tells us that calorie-counting alone does not add up to a healthy diet. Because not all calories are created equal, nutritional content is a much better measure of how food affects function.
The body converts food into energy at different rates, and glycemic index (GI) measures how quickly carbohydrates are digested into glucose. Foods with a high GI are digested and depleted quickly; low-GI foods are processed much slower by making the digestive system work harder to separate sugar from other components. Because low-GI foods release energy at a slow and steady pace, they keep you feeling fuller longer than high-GI foods.
The right fuel can take you far
The body needs energy to function, and that energy comes from food. But food is more than just fuel. Much like filling up the tank of your car, it’s the quality of the fuel that determines how far and how fast you can go.
Eating high-GI food is like putting regular gas into an engine that requires premium. The body needs plenty of nutrients to function, and much like low-premium fuel, processed foods simply don’t give you the energy you need. No nutritionist would recommend eating a glazed donut for breakfast—the refined sugar and carbohydrates might reward you with a sudden energy boost, but it is quickly followed by a crash in blood glucose and often a craving for more junk food.
Regardless of individual dietary preferences, limiting refined sugar, saturated fats, and salt will have a huge impact on performance. High-fat foods provide slightly longer-lasting energy but can also lower brain oxygen levels, which results in sluggishness. Just one week on a high-fat diet causes slower reaction times, blunted exercise performance, and decreased attention span. The impact of an unhealthy diet goes well beyond the ‘afternoon slump’: several studies suggest that high-sugar diets may worsen depression and other mood disorders.
Nutrient-dense foods, on the other hand, are more like premium fuel: certain vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, lean protein, and unsaturated fats provide essential benefits and energy to sustain your body throughout the day. Foods with a lower glycemic index, such as dark leafy greens, protein-packed fruits, and fiber-rich whole grains, are essential to a well-balanced diet. It’s also worth considering that the brain needs a steady supply of energy to function, and small meals and healthy snacks may facilitate productivity better than three large meals per day.
For full-time employees, the workplace is an important food environment—second only to their own homes—and their eating habits are shaped by the choices that are available. One way employers can boost productivity is by controlling the environment to make healthy decisions easier to achieve than unhealthy ones. For example, replace the chips in the vending machines with trail mix, or find a fresher option (such as Mediterranean) for staff lunches instead of ordering pizza. Given that these interventions are tailored to the specific needs of the workforce, there are plenty of opportunities for employers to do so without incurring significant costs. Various studies have successfully tested different methods of dietary intervention: reducing the price of healthful snacks and beverages in on-site vending machines significantly increased sales; improving the selection and taste of produce in work cafeterias resulted in higher fruit and vegetable intake per employee; and most successful were interventions that combined nutritional education with increased access. The key is to limit fatigue-inducing processed foods while providing more access to food that’s favorable in both taste and function.
Compared to more immediate occupational risk factors, nutrition may seem insignificant. But given the strong potential to improve productivity, it’s an area that’s worth investing in. There’s strong evidence that targeted nutritional interventions improve workplace productivity and are likely to more than offset the cost of implementation. Serious performance requires serious nutrition, and eating right can help workers stay motivated both during and after work. Comprehensive nutritional support not only furthers employee well-being, it’s also part of what makes a culture of health truly sustainable.
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