The day-to-day lifestyle choices people make can make or break their health. Indeed, a large majority of chronic conditions including heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes are driven by poor eating habits, physical inactivity, inadequate sleep, unmanaged stress, cigarette smoking, and other unhealthy choices.
Obviously, this comes with a cost. In fact, national health expenditures for lifestyle-driven conditions alone total about $1.1 trillion a year. Due to the increasing prevalence of unhealthy lifestyle choices among workers, employers bear a significant burden of the costs through decreased job performance and productivity, frequent absenteeism, and increased employee turnover.
Traditional workplace wellness programs have attempted to address these problems through delivery models largely centered on diagnostics, education, and incentives. Problem is, these programs tend to be very costly, generally provide little return on the investment for the employer, and oftentimes don’t lead to improved health outcomes.
It is possible to promote better lifestyle choices among employees without a huge financial investment in workplace wellness programs. It starts with a top-down approach where company leaders make healthy living a part of the overall company culture. From promoting healthy food to fitness, here are some simple, subtle, yet highly effective ways to do this.
Make Healthier Food Options Available
A recent survey suggests that over half of U.S. workers have trouble eating healthy on the job. This is alarming, as the food choices employees make not only influence their overall health and well-being, but these choices can also directly affect their energy levels and alertness, focus and productivity in the work environment.
Obviously, employers can’t control what employees decide to eat while at work. And they shouldn’t try! Employers can, however, facilitate voluntary adoption of healthier eating habits by making wholesome foods more readily available.
Many companies offer up free snacks, beverages and even meals to keep their workers happy and motivated to work. But too often the choices come down to pastries, bagels, chips, pizza, soft drinks, and other ultra-processed, sugar-laden foods. Needless to say, this goes counter to any considerable effort to promote better lifestyle choices at work.
Any time a company offers complimentary food, it represents an opportunity to introduce the healthiest choices possible. This notion can be further extended to food and beverage selections for company meetings, parties, and events.
When it comes to snacks, consider more wholesome options like fruit and chopped vegetables with fresh guacamole, hummus or other healthy dips, nuts and dried fruit, and plain yogurt with mix-ins like fruit, nuts, and seeds. Additionally, plant-based foods like vegetables, beans, peas, lentils and quinoa make great side dishes and even main courses for meals. Access to healthy vending product options and potable drinking water is also a must.
When such wholesome food choices are present and available at work, employees can then decide how much, and whether or not, they’ll eat them. Oftentimes, when people are hungry or just have a desire to snack, they’re apt to eat just about anything that’s in front of them, especially if it’s free.
Integrate Movement into Company Culture
Workplace sitting occupies a great majority of people’s daily sedentary time. According to recent findings, the average worker spends close to a third of their days in a seated position. This is a problem in and of itself, as prolonged sitting comes with a unique set of health risks. Besides increasing the overall risk of heart disease, diabetes and early death, sitting for long periods can set off a dangerous cascade of painful and potentially disabling neck, back and leg problems.
Regular movement will undoubtedly alleviate many of these risks and thereby improve the health and well-being of employees. And this doesn’t require a huge financial outlay on treadmill workstations and corporate gyms. But it does require some forward thinking when it comes to designing more flexible working options.
For instance, purchasing adjustable standing desk converters for employees is a small but meaningful investment for creating a healthier working atmosphere. Another economical solution is to place under-desk cycles for workers to turn their sitting time into active time. Perhaps even just a single unit for sharing.
Even simply giving workers the flexibility to get up and move around for 3-5 minutes every hour can make a difference. In doing so, they could accumulate up to 40 minutes of activity in an 8-hour workday. Walking meetings are another possible and very popular option for increasing activity levels. It costs next to nothing to designate an area around the company building for such purposes.
In addition, stretching and strength training exercises can easily be performed at work. For 2-3-minute spurts, employees can do upper and lower body stretches and strength exercises like squats, push-ups and planks right in their cubicle areas or office space. Bring in a trained fitness professional to teach proper exercises and workout form in real time or virtually.
Normalize and Support Mental Health
The U.S. industry is footing a hefty bill for mental health problems in the workplace. According to the American Institute of Stress, workplace-related stress alone costs the industry over $300 billion a year in accidents, absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity, and medical, legal and insurance costs. Adding insult to injury, employees with mental health problems are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors like cigarette smoking, alcohol abuse, and drug use.
In light of these facts, building and sustaining a company culture that normalizes mental health is a critical step towards promoting health and wellness among workers. And this needs to be a top-down effort.
Leadership can start by ensuring that the physical and psychological demands of jobs are within employees’ capabilities. Indeed, ever-increasing workloads, high pressure deadlines and inadequate work-life balance are just a few of many job-related triggers for anxiety, depression and substance use disorders among workers.
It’s important that employees are listened to and heard. Let them have an active role in deciding how their work gets done. Also ensure that the work environment itself facilitates collaboration and ongoing support for co-workers, first-line supervisors, and managers. In addition, allot ample time for work breaks and encourage employees to regularly take them. No human being is capable of working at 100% throughout an entire workday.
Ongoing efforts to improve mental health literacy is also of paramount importance. Increased literacy and learning in general can help reduce stigma around mental health problems and promote more positive overall attitudes towards help seeking.
Above all, establish thorough guidelines and practices to support employees exhibiting classic signs of mental health problems or high-risk behaviors. For mid-size and larger companies, onboarding a licensed mental health professional could prove to be especially beneficial for compliance, screening, diagnostic and referral purposes.
Facilitate and Encourage a Healthy Sleep Culture
Inadequate sleep is a major public health threat that affects more than a third of American workers. A particularly alarming fact is that research has linked inadequate sleep to 5 of the top 15 leading causes of death, which include heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and traffic accidents.
This comes with high costs and consequences to companies. Indeed, sleep-deprived workers cost the U.S. industry an estimated $411 billion a year in absenteeism, accidents, and other lost productivity. Even occasional sleep loss can cause decreased productivity, poor work performance, and adversely affect the overall dispositions of employees.
Given these facts, the powerful influence of poor sleep in the workplace shouldn’t be taken lightly. As well-rested employees are generally healthier, happier and more productive, companies should not only encourage good sleep habits, but they should also facilitate them.
Companies can start by arming employees with meaningful information about sleep health, sleep hygiene, and common sleep disorders. When crafting content, the messaging should carry an approachable tone. Content should also be tailored to suit different types of work schedules, including fixed, irregular, rotating and split shifts. The most usable information is that which employees find to be of relevance.
Another good strategy involves brightening the workplace with natural light, when possible. This can help regulate the body’s sleep-wake cycles. At a minimum, encourage employees to regularly get up and get out into the sun. Also beneficial is the designation of “rest areas” to accommodate daytime napping. Just a simple 20-30-minute nap can help lower stress levels, improve mood, and increase alertness among workers.
It’s also important to recognize that physical activity and other healthy lifestyle choices can naturally improve sleep quality. Therefore, promoting better lifestyle choices in the workplace will inherently support good sleep hygiene practices outside of work.
Listen, Educate, and Lead by Example
When it comes to positively influencing lifestyle choices, simply meeting employees where they are can go a very long way. Each one has unique needs, preferences, and capabilities. They all have personal stories that have shaped their relationship with wellness. Each has their own environmental influences. Unfortunately, many workplace wellness programs aren’t planned with such factors in mind. This is why they often fail.
Leadership won’t understand employees without asking the right questions and listening to learn. Use surveys, focus groups or other means, to ask workers about their personal values, motivations, and lifestyle goals. Learn about some of the health issues or concerns they have. Ask them what they need to be successful, both at work and in life.
Asking questions and listening will not only ensure that company efforts are actually meeting the demand, but it’ll also increase the likelihood of employee engagement.
The same holds true when it comes to education. More education won’t necessarily lead to a healthier lifestyle if workers aren’t willing or able to put it into practice. When offering educational resources, ensure that the information is relevant, realistic, and approachable. As employees are often burdened by time constraints, consider offering educational experiences during paid work time.
To fully demonstrate commitment, all levels of leadership should model healthy lifestyle choices themselves. This can have a huge impact on the behaviors of workers. First-line supervisors and managers should show that they’re taking walks in the middle of the day or even periodically conduct walking meetings. Senior leadership should regularly share healthy meals with their team members. And C-level executives should freely speak on the importance of sleep and mental health.
In the presence of such modeling, workers will feel free to prioritize their own health and wellness by being more proactive about their lifestyle choices.
Offer Lifestyle Coaching in the Workplace
Even with an abundance of healthy living programs, resources and tools completely at their disposal some employees may simply be stuck in a lifestyle rut. This is where bringing in a qualified healthy living coach can help. The fact of the matter is that deeply ingrained habits largely drive personal lifestyle choices. These habits tend to become self-perpetuating and, at times, self-limiting, which makes them especially difficult to change.
Qualified coaches are change experts trained to help people realize their full potential. More experienced coaches can help employees uncover what motivates their lifestyle behaviors and what might actually be getting in the way of their ability to make better choices. Coaches can also help guide employees in setting achievable health and wellness goals, and establishing realistic action plans that adequately address and meet the needs and challenges of their everyday lives.
As a healthy living coach, I engage both employees and executives in companies of all types and sizes with empathy-led, evidence-based individual coaching, group coaching, and online/onsite courses and programs. Whether it’s a one-time keynote, a weekly wellness seminar or recurring coaching, I empower and educate individuals to take control over their personal situations, make conscious lifestyle choices, and overcome their own personal barriers to healthy living. Explore my services.