Over the years, we have developed work styles and adopted habits that are detrimental to our physical, mental and emotional health. This has impacted our engagement and our performance in negative ways and has stood in the way of the most effective ways to increase both of those in the workplace, says Leigh Stringer, a workplace design specialist, writer and researcher as well as author of “The Healthy Workplace.”
“It’s not that we’re bad people, or that we aren’t working hard. The problem is that what our minds and bodies need at a basic level is in conflict with our work style. We are so focused on work, on getting things done, that we’ve changed the way we eat, move and sleep in a way that is actually counter-productive,” Stringer says.
To achieve a healthier workplace, Stringer offers examples of 10 bad habits you need to address immediately and how you can start to break those habits.
1. Sitting down to work
You’ve read the news and have heard that sitting for long periods of time is bad for your health. Extended sitting can cause, among other things, deep vein thrombosis and poor cardiac and metabolic health. The issue isn’t that we sit, the issue is that many of us sit and work without standing or walking for many hours at a time, without getting up to move around, Stringer says. Of course, at the other extreme, walking at a treadmill desk for eight hours a day is not the answer either (at least for most of us), she says.
Instead, stand up every 30 minutes and walk around every hour and a half, even if it’s just for a few minutes, she advises. If you can request a standing desk, try it out. If you can’t, at least try and find surfaces around your workplace that are bar-height where you can stand and work for a few minutes each day. You also can take phone calls, watch presentations, read or perform other activities while standing up, or even walking if it makes sense for the task at hand.
2. Using the elevator to exclusion
Elevators in modern buildings are typically placed front and center, which is great for “universal design” and accessibility for people with different physical abilities. However, if you do not need the elevator, you are missing an opportunity to make a healthier choice.
Instead, take the stairs and use prompts and cues to encourage stair use across your office, Stringer says. You can paint the stairwell a lighter color so that it appears brighter and less foreboding. Add artwork to give the stairwell a personal touch and add visual interest. Pipe in pleasant music; some buildings are actually taking music out of elevators and putting them in the stairs to make the stair experience more desirable. Finally, if your local building code will allow, install a magnetic ‘hold open’ gadget on the stairwell door which will release in case of a fire. Psychologically, having a staircase that is more open feels safer, which increases use.
“Want a really simple trick to encourage stair use? Studies show that just by putting up signs explaining the health benefits of taking the stairs (such as a sign in the elevator lobby that shows how many calories you can burn), stair usage increases by 54 percent,” Stringer says.
3. Mindless eating
Mindless eating — eating while your head is focused on something else — typically results in eating faster and consuming more calories than if you were seated at a dining table and paying attention to what you eat, Stringer says. Even worse than eating at your desk? Eating take-out food at your desk. Americans eat in a restaurant five times a week, according to a survey conducted by LivingSocial.
Instead, encourage workers to bring in their own snacks and meals, and to eat away from their primary work space. Not only does this encourage mindful eating, it keeps food and drinks from infiltrating keyboards and computer equipment, Stringer says.
You also should invite your colleagues to have lunch with you and use that time to connect face-to-face. An option for remote workers is to “have lunch” together via Skype or another video messaging platform, she says. You also can work with your company’s food service provider or local catering companies to add healthier options to on-site cafeterias or when catering meetings and events, she says.
[ Related story: Stop your workers from ‘quitting in their seats’ ]
4. Junk food’s front and center
“You know how you walk into a grocery store and find yourself buying the junk food at the end of the aisle? Or, have you noticed how candy is located at child’s-eye-level by the checkout counter? Foods that are easy to spot and presented well are not put there by accident, and food companies pay for the privilege. The secret is ‘choice architecture,’ a term for different ways in which choices can be presented to consumers, and the impact of that presentation on consumer decision making. Don’t fall victim to this at work!” Stringer says.
Instead, hide unhealthy foods in the kitchenette or break room by putting them in opaque or translucent containers (versus placing healthy foods, like fruit or nuts, in glass containers). Companies that provide subsidized snacks are starting to opt for refrigerators with glass doors to encourage employees to grab healthy foods with a shorter shelf life (boiled eggs, salad, fruits) versus processed foods that can be left on the counter, she says.
Some organizations have negotiated contracts with their food and snack vendors that explicitly tell them to provision, place, package and label food in ways that encourage healthy choices.
“One large company I interviewed for the book has an online catering service that provides healthy choices for meetings, including a ‘celebration guide’ that offers smaller portions of sweets for employees to use when celebrating employee birthdays, work anniversaries or retirements,” Stringer says.
5. Piles and piles of paper
Those piles of paper on a desk are likely full of dust and dust mites, especially if they’ve been sitting there a while. For many people, these can trigger serious allergies and asthma. Interestingly, in a 2009 study, Xerox found that as many as two out of every five pages printed in an office for “daily use” – email, web pages and reference materials – have been printed for a single use. So, before you print, think: do you really need all that paper in your workspace?
Instead, file paperwork and put a removal and storage system in place to get rid of excess paper and documents that you don’t need access to on a regular basis. Part of that system should include a digital filing and scanning system and/or a system that’s entirely digital from start to finish, Stringer says.
“You’ll get rid of dust mites, and a cleaner desk can improve air quality. Also, removing paper can give the appearance of having more space. Big piles of paper, not to mention all the furniture that stores it, eats into the physical workspace and makes it more crowded. This feeling of being crowded in increases stress and decreases our satisfaction with our work area,” she says.
6. Late-night messaging
You might think it’s urgent and important, but late-night chatter only serves to increase stress, shortens sleep and impacts long-term productivity, Stringer says. It’s not only detrimental to you; if you’re someone’s client, report or supervisor, you’re also directly impacting their stress levels and sleep every time they’re cc’ed on an email, String says. A survey put out by Good Technology found that some 80 percent of the 1,000 Americans polled said they spend seven extra hours a week or 30 extra hours a month checking emails and answering phone calls after hours.
Instead, wait until normal business hours to send emails, or if you must write something, don’t send it until the next morning, or Monday morning if you’re working on the weekend, don’t, Stringer says. You also should consider using project management and/or communication tools that allow your team members to choose when they want to work on something, and remove them from a situation where they are pushed information and in reaction mode all the time, she says.
[ Related story: 5 tips to avoid summer’s plummeting productivity ]
7. Not taking vacation time
A survey for the career website Glassdoor found that U.S. employees use only 51 percent of their eligible paid vacation time and paid time off, according to a recent survey of 2,300 workers who receive paid vacation. Even more frightening, 61 percent of Americans work while they are on vacation, despite complaints from family members. Twenty five percent reported being contacted by a colleague about a work-related matter while taking time off, while one in five have been contacted by their boss.
Instead, plan your vacations ahead of time, use all the time allotted to you, try to push thoughts of work out of your head and enjoy yourself. Even if you do end up checking in a few times during your PTO, you need to give yourself permission to unplug, Stringer says.
“You need time off to refresh and revitalize to be more effective. And, your family will love you for it. According to John De Graaf, who made a documentary about overworked Americans called Running Out of Time, there is a high cost to not taking vacation. He says women who don’t take regular vacations are anywhere from two to eight times more likely to suffer from depression, and have a 50 percent higher chance of heart disease. For men, the risk of death from a heart attack goes up a third,” Stringer says.
8. Going to work when you’re sick
When you come into the workplace sick, you are very likely spreading germs to your colleagues and making them sick, too, which reduces organizational productivity. As tempting as it is for you to “power through” and minimize sick days, the overall health risk is not worth it, Stringer says.
“Researchers from the University of Arizona in Tucson placed a tracer virus on commonly touched objects such as a doorknob or tabletop in workplaces. At multiple intervals, the researchers sampled a range of surfaces including light switches, countertops, sink tap handles and push buttons. They found that between 40 percent and 60 percent of the surfaces were contaminated within two to four hours. If you didn’t have one already, this may be a reason to adopt a ‘work from home’ policy, and barring that, everyone should frequently wash their hands,” she says.
9. Staying indoors
A good portion of our global workforce spends about 90 percent of each day indoors, which essentially puts workers in a state of ‘light deficiency’ that negatively impacts sleep cycles, Stringer says.
Instead, you should take every opportunity to get outside, preferably earlier in the day, and stay outdoors for as long as you can.
“We need more intense light to reset our circadian rhythm, which helps us sleep. Some sleep experts recommend being outside as much as two hours a day, but even going outside for 30 to 60 minutes during the day – say, over a lunch break or during a walking meeting outdoors – will provide roughly 80 percent of what you need to anchor your circadian rhythm. That’s according to Dan Pardi, a researcher with the Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Department at Stanford, and the Departments of Neurology and Endocrinology at Leiden University in the Netherlands,” she says.
[ Related story: 4 signs it’s time to look for a new job ]
10. Putting work first
If you aren’t healthy, you can’t take care of your family, you won’t be there for your colleagues and work performance plummets. You should always take care of yourself and your physical, emotional and mental health first, especially if you are dealing with chronic health issues, Stringer says.
“Make your health a priority, and build time into your calendar to work out, to relax or do something that gives you energy and sparks your personal passion. Healthy workers are more productive; another obvious benefit to the bottom line is the avoidance of health care costs. But companies that make investments in employee health and well-being also see increases in engagement, productivity and growth. It’s time to get our priorities straight and make worker health and well-being a foundation for good business,” Stringer says.