Staying healthy at work

Staying Healthy At Work

Forbes calls the U.S. the “no vacation nation.” That’s because almost one-half of Americans had unused vacation time last year. Polls indicate we are working more, sleeping less, and getting sicker. Stress is the number one cause of illness, and the data shows that most of us are handling a mountain of anxiety right now. All this stress costs employers big money: about 8% of total healthcare costs are associated with stress-related illness stemming from unhealthy work environments.

It’s true that work can be stressful. But does it have to be? Why aren’t we using vacation days? What can employees and employers do to create a culture of health in the workplace?

With the International Day of Yoga taking place on June 21, now is the perfect time to step back, breathe deeply, and find work-life balance again.

U.S. Work/Life Balance — An Oxymoron?

US Work/Life Balance

Last year, the headlines trumpeted that the U.S is the most overworked developed country in the world. It wasn’t an exaggeration. 20somethingfinance compiled these ugly statistics:

  • In 1960, only 20% of American households had both parents working in a job outside the home. Today, the number is closer to 70%.
  • The United States is the only country in the Americas without a national parental leave act. Europeans typically receive more than 20 weeks off.
  • The U.S. lacks laws that mandate the maximum length of the workweek. There are more than 134 other countries around the world that have these rules to protect workers.
  • Perhaps, as a result, most U.S. workers put in over 40 hours a week.
  • Our productivity has increased by 400% since 1950.
  • We work 137 more hours per year than the Japanese, 260 more than the British, and 499 more than the French.

While it’s okay to love what you do, it seems clear that Americans are paying a price for our work obsession. That price seems to be our health; one study suggests $46 billion in excess healthcare costs stem from “high job demands” and long work hours racked up another $13 billion. The World Health Organization (WHO) says burnout is a syndrome of “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

A recent survey on workplace stress showed that more than half of Americans feel isolated within a workplace “due to an unhelpful and hostile environment.” The data suggests that these environments foster additional stress, which in turn contributes to increased absenteeism and behavioral or mental health risks. The end result is that 71% of American workers spend time at work thinking about or looking for a new job. This is a big problem for employers struggling to find good talent in a tight labor market.

But the costs to employers and their workers could be mitigated with a bit of effort.

What Employees Can Do to Stay Healthier at Work

What employees can do to stay healthier at work

Employees are partially to blame for their lack of health at work. We may make excuses for not exercising or eating nutritious foods, but those are only two of the puzzle pieces of staying healthy. What are some of the other ways employees can make changes in the workplace to stay healthier?

1. Standing Desks (Probably) Work

Here’s some bad news and good news about standing desks. An article in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health found that workers actually do not burn many more calories standing versus sitting at a desk. However, sitting for long periods of time has been linked to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and premature death. Harvard Health Publishing from Harvard Medical School suggests more studies need to be done to link a reduction in these diseases with the use of a standing desk. However, they admit their hope that the standing desk can have some preventative benefits, including a reduction in back pain by standing periodically to work.

Check out reviews on standing desks.

2. Set Reminders to Stand Up or Stretch

In 2015, the Annals of Internal Medicine published research on how too much sedentary time can kill you. Sitting and lying around without the benefits of physical activity causes a host of problems up to and including death. While we mentioned standing desks as a way to change things up at work, another trick to stay healthier at work would be to set your phone, watch, Fitbit, or computer to remind you to stand up and move around throughout the day. While you’re standing up try some simple stretches to help you avoid what doctors call “the sitting disease” from physical inactivity.

3. Skip Office Snacks

We know you’ve heard all the lectures about eating healthier, but one of the toughest places to listen to this good advice is at work. Most offices these days are filled with catered lunches, snacks, desktop treats, and afternoon ice cream runs, which make it harder for everyone to eat healthier. If it helps to team up with friends at the office to support healthier eating choices, then make it happen.

4. Practice Ergonomics

The Mayo Clinic has some good suggestions for adjusting your office to help prevent neck, back, and hand pain. Having an ergonomically designed office chair and a computer monitor adjusted to support your joints instead of straining them is an important way to lessen the physical wear and tear that office work applies to our bodies.

5. Prevent Eye Strain

Our digital screens are destroying our eyes. It’s a phenomenon that The Vision Council calls “Digital Eye Strain,” and it’s something many of us experience but don’t discuss. Some of the symptoms include headaches, dry or irritated eyes, blurriness, and even irritability and a reduced attention span. But did you know there are glasses and contacts available to alleviate some of these symptoms? Additionally, the American Optometric Association suggests following the 20/20/20 rule, which is to take a 20-second break from looking at a screen every 20-minutes throughout the day. Try focusing on an object 20 feet away to lessen eye strain.

Here’s an infographic on the 20/20/20 rule.

6. Take the Stairs

Climbing just one set of stairs burns nine calories for the average 160-pound person. If you’re mobile enough to climb the stairs, try to do it as much as possible. It can build your leg muscles, help your knees, and improve your cardiovascular health.

7. Start a Walking Club

If you don’t have a mandated break time as part of your job, it’s easy to launch into work and keep your head down until lunch. To boost your creativity, focus, and productivity, try taking a 10-minute break from the computer mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Researchers suggest that if you walk even a short distance within a green, natural environment you will lessen the brain fatigue that could be stymieing your work. So, why not take your next meeting outside in the fresh air?

8. Stay Hydrated

Studies show that about three-quarters of Americans are not drinking enough every day. This neglect of our body’s hydration needs manifests itself in fatigue, joint pain, headaches, high blood pressure, and ulcers. Water is like the oil in an engine, keeping joints lubricated and all the parts functioning properly. Drinking more water is really one of the simplest things you can do every day to improve health.

9. Stop Multitasking

In the mosh pit of life, focusing on one thing at a time can feel…wrong somehow. But studies show that 98% of people fail miserably at multitasking, experiencing a productivity drop, increasing stress, lessening concentration, and in the case of texting and driving, threatening lives. Ironically, multitasking actually decreases worker productivity by 40%. One thing workers can do to improve their health at work is tackle one thing at a time. Be present in the moment on the project you’re tackling. Turn off your email, Slack, and smartphone for even an hour to tackle a task. Then, assess how you feel, how much you accomplished, and what the quality of the work was.

10. Declutter Your Workspace

97% of Americans say a cluttered workspace adds to their stress at work. If your desk is a chaotic mess, it adds to the distraction you may already feel. To calm your mind, try reorganizing your space. Keeping your desk clean can help you stay more organized and focused on the tasks at hand. Try adding a new ritual to your Friday afternoon by taking five minutes to clean and organize your desk. You could even take a little more time and prepare for Monday’s fresh start. These simple efforts to organize will help you feel more in control even when the workplace is stressful, disorganized, and chaotic.

The point here is to provide you with a number of suggestions that you can implement no matter the type of work environment. These changes can be incremental but should be part of real and lasting lifestyle changes to improve your health at work.

One caveat: If you have health issues or are out of shape, talk with your doctor before going all out on exercise.

What Employers Can Do to Create a Healthy Workplace

Reduction in sick days with wellness programs

It’s good business to encourage healthy employees. Studies show a 75% reduction in the number of sick days used when employers launch an employee wellness plan. While most companies have added a wellness program, there are other initiatives that employers can facilitate to support their employees in their quest for health. For example:

1. Add Nutrition to Employee Wellness Plans

The majority of U.S. employers offer employee wellness programs to help mitigate the rising costs of healthcare, but most of these programs do not include a focus on employee nutrition as an overall holistic approach to health. Given that diet is the number one factor impacting health, employers should consider corporate healthy eating programs as important as OSHA-regulated safety initiatives. In addition to a coordinated healthy eating initiative, employers can work to influence employee-eating habits by stocking healthier snacks and offering appropriate foods in the cafeteria and vending machines. Instead of offering donuts in early morning meetings, try fresh fruit, yogurt, or bagels. Lunch meetings should include a spread of lean meats and fresh fruits and vegetables. These are just two examples of simple and effective ways to change corporate culture to embrace health.

2. Promote Physical Activity

Employers can make it easier for employees (even remote employees) to get active. They can promote walk- or bike-a-thons to raise money for social causes. Big companies may already have a gym and showers for employees at work, or if the budget allows, they can add them. HR can work with department leaders to support lunchtime walking or running clubs. Corporate culture can actually shift to promote exercise by supporting national holidays like National Yoga Day or other events. Even one small step could help. For example, since office workers often sit all day in front of computers, why not encourage stretching or walk breaks a couple of times a day to get people up and moving?

3. Educate Employees to Improve Their Health

Many companies offer lunch-and-learn events. What if your company invited a doctor in to speak to employees about ways to improve their health? How about asking your company wellness program for resources that you could call upon to push the idea of a culture of health for all your workers? Companies could also sponsor on-site flu vaccines with information on why getting the shot could help employees stay healthier.

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