Food for thought: nutrition can boost productivity

Stuart Hearn
Clear Review
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Eating lunch at work desk
We’re constantly looking for ways and means to improve employee productivity. Articles have been written that cover the effect of lighting on performance, how who you sit near can influence your efficiency and how regular talks with line managers can boost employee engagement. But what if the secret to improved performance is far simpler? Could your employees’ moods, enthusiasm and goal completion be revitalised with the right diet and nutrition? If so, this could be a serious performance management consideration.

Is food a performance management issue?

When constructing a performance management system, a lot of thought and consideration goes into ways and means of maximising employee performance. We introduce regular performance discussions in favour of old-fashioned annual appraisals, we invest in intuitive technology and performance management software and we introduce flexible working to optimise productivity. These measures are essential, but it would also benefit organisations to take more of a proactive approach to efficiency with regards to nutrition.

Various studies have examined the role food plays in relation to our workplace performance (a critical issue, particularly when you consider we consume a third of our daily calories at work). The British Dietetic Association (BDA) has pointed out that regular eating patterns and a high-quality diet can improve overall health, boost productivity and reduce employee absenteeism. Other sources suggest a healthy diet can improve morale, staff retention and cognitive performance.

Put simply, what we eat makes a difference to the health of our bodies and minds, which means we should all care what our employees eat on a daily basis and support healthy eating where we can. But what food should we be eating and what should we steer clear of?

What foods should employees be eating at work?

The healthiest possible foods which hold the best nutrients to spur motivation and performance come from fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains. The general rule of thumb is to pick whole foods over more convenient, processed food. A paper published by the British Journal of Health Psychology demonstrated how healthy food can impact our day-to-day experience. The study from this paper put participants on diets rich in fruit and vegetables, and found that people became happier, more engaged and more creative than they ever were before. This is because fruits and vegetables contain nutrients that induce dopamine production, which causes us to be more motivated and curious.

Chia seeds have been listed as a superfood to improve brain function. They are rich in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. They also have anti-inflammatory properties, as they are rich in antioxidants, which is great for blood flow in our brains. If you’re looking for fruits high in antioxidants, you should consider a handful of blueberries, which can help improve memory, learning and reasoning skills. Blueberries also contain gallic acid, which protects the brain from degeneration and stress. Chocolate lovers will also be pleased to know that dark chocolate contains antioxidants and flavanols, which help to improve mental focus.

Broccoli and avocados are also great contenders, as they’re a good source of vitamin K, which enhances cognitive function and concentration. Broccoli has the added benefit of being high in glucosinolates, which slows the breakdown of acetylcholine. Low levels of this neurotransmitter are associated with Alzheimer's.

Whole grains also help us remain energised and mentally alert. As they have a low-GI, they release glucose slowly and keep us fuller for longer.

What food is detrimental to energy and efficiency?

Harvard Business Review points out that employees tend to regard convenience meals as efficient, as they are cheaper and faster alternatives. But just because food is quick to appear on your plate, this doesn’t mean you’re making a wise decision with regards to continuous and sustained work performance. What you save in time now, you are likely to pay for later with lower levels of productivity.

To optimise performance, employees should avoid high-fat food, such as biscuits, cheeseburgers, doughnuts and cheese. One study into nurses’ snacking habits found that those who ate unhealthy snacks more than three times a week made more cognitive errors and had more lapses in concentration. It was concluded that this was a result of increased fatigue and reduced alertness, due to the high-fat content. Worryingly, high-fat diets can also cause blockages in the arteries leading to your brain. This just goes to show that in nutrition, just like in daily working life, the easiest route is not always the best one to take.

Don’t let employees work at their desks

Employees eating at their desks is an increasing problem in the UK. Individuals feel under such great pressure that they feel unable to take even a 20-minute break away from their work. According to one study, despite the fact that 90% of employees feel healthier and more positive after a stint outside, 52% never leave their office for lunch and 24% regularly work through lunch. This has been shown to negatively affect productivity levels, while having a wider effect on business performance.

Employees might feel they’re doing the right thing by staying at their desk and demonstrating their dedication to their role, but breaks are integral. After a break, employees are more alert, more focused and perform at a better rate. In fact, data from DeskTime showed that the most productive employees took 17-minute breaks from their work every 52 minutes. That time was spent truly relaxing, as opposed to checking emails.

So how can the HR department play a role in changing company culture, encouraging breaks from desks and increasing awareness of good nutrition? Like any organisational change, it will take time, but it needs to start with management. They need to practice what they preach and leave their offices for their lunch breaks. They also need to actively encourage others to do the same, making it clear that it is company policy. Such issues can be brought up during regular one-on-one performance discussions.

With regards to nutrition, many sources recommend introducing education campaigns and providing incentives, such as free fruit on a regular basis. Some companies even have “healthy living” awards and encourage a friendly level of competition to get people involved. After time and with enough effort, you will notice the performance and productivity of your organisation rise to higher and higher levels.


About the author: Stuart Hearn has over 20 years of experience in the HR sector. As CEO of Clear Review, a modern performance management software for SMEs, he has his finger on the pulse of all the latest performance management trends.


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