How Employee Lifestyles Can Impact Your Business
by Andreea D. Vanacker
Original article first published in Forbes
In our lifetime, we will spend a large number of our days working. Despite this reality, many of the activities that your employees choose to pursue while outside of the office will have an impact on their performance and mood within the office. Let’s explore in detail three factors and how your awareness of them could change the way you understand, lead and educate your team.
Do some of your employees seem anxious on a regular basis, while others are commonly logging sick days due to a mild cold? If this has been someone's reality, sleep deprivation could be the source of these problems. Adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night to function optimally. But to actually sleep for seven hours, we need to plan to be in bed for eight hours, given the cycles we go through during sleep. If we do not get enough sleep, it may increase our risk for diabetes, heart disease and obesity. But did you know that for healthy adults, we only spend about 13% to 23% in deep sleep — also known as restorative sleep — and about 20% to 25% in REM sleep — also known as dreaming? So if we sleep for eight hours a night, that is roughly 62 to 110 minutes of deep sleep. If we feel tired when we wake up, it is because we are not getting enough deep sleep, which is essential for memory, learning, physical recovery, brain health and the immune system.
Furthermore, lack of sleep has been shown to trigger up to a 30% rise in anxiety levels. So do not be as quick to judge why your employees seem more anxious than usual or are sick on a regular basis; instead, inquire about their sleep habits. Also, if you often see emails from some employees at late hours, discuss how you can shift priorities to give them the chance to recharge their batteries. Encourage them to start adding an extra hour of sleep, and see how that improves their overall mental and physical well-being.
When employees feel stressed, their bodies experience a collection of changes known as the stress response that comprises an increase in heart rate, adrenaline and cortisol. Elevated cortisol levels can contribute to the buildup of fat tissue and to weight gain because cortisol increases appetite as we seek to obtain extra energy to deal with the situation. If your employees are under a lot of stress and are not exercising, this could hinder their performance.
Regular physical exercise can help put their stress response system back into a more normal balance while helping them be healthier. Exercises to reduce stress include brisk walking, jogging or running, swimming, cycling, dancing, boxing, and high-intensity interval-training workouts. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that even a 10-minute walk can be enough to restore calm and reduce stress and anxiety. Furthermore, research in the past decade has highlighted how exercise is an important factor in increasing our cognitive ability: People who spent more time doing moderate to vigorous physical activity showed a larger hippocampus, which is a zone in the brain that plays a key role in learning and memory.
Encourage your employees to take daily walks, or consider having walking meetings instead of sit-down meetings, when appropriate. Employees can track their progress on a weekly basis to see how exercising can directly impact their overall energy, brain function and overall performance.
What your employees eat has a direct impact on their overall energy and brainpower. Let’s first take a look at coffee, which most employees drink before they start their day. When we drink a cup of coffee, it can take 45 minutes until we feel its full effect as it stimulates our brain and makes us more alert. However, caffeine blocks adenosine, a chemical in our brain that signals to our body when we are tired and that it is time to go to sleep. According to the book The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy, it takes our body four to six hours to metabolize caffeine, and when this happens, our brain is flooded with adenosine, which causes a big energy drain and tiredness (often in the afternoon if we have a morning coffee).
Start paying more attention to the levels of energy that everyone has in the afternoons, and consider avoiding afternoon meetings altogether. Educate your employees that as they drink coffee on a regular basis, their brain develops more adenosine receptors, so it will take more coffee to keep them awake. If they want to use caffeine to give them a needed boost, encourage them to use coffee strategically when they really need it. If your employees find they need a cup of coffee to give them that daily morning boost, encourage them to consider sleeping one hour more instead.
Beyond coffee, we also need to be aware of brain foods. Although the brain represents only 2% of the body’s total weight, it demands about 20% of the body’s energy supply. Every cell in our body requires energy to function properly. To boost the vitality of our brainpower, we need to limit carbohydrates (pasta, bread, rice, etc.), increase omega-3 intake (fish, shrimp, walnuts, beans, etc.) and decrease sugar intake. These healthy choices have been shown to be vital to brain health, which ultimately impacts cognitive performance. If your company has snacks/lunches for employees in your office, consider wisely the food choices you make. Educate and reward healthier food choices.
As leaders of organizations, we need to create all the conditions for our employees to succeed. We often think about all the work-related realities and forget about the lifestyle realities that can have a massive impact on employee performance. Organizations are human ecosystems, and in order for people and organizations to thrive, sleep, exercise and food serve as the foundations of employee well-being.