Devoting more time to your work than you do to your wellbeing may seem unavoidable when you’re busy growing your company, but there could be a productivity price to pay. Health experts outline how to achieve a better outcome for both body and business
Long hours, stressful journeys and back-to-back meetings can take their toll on any leader’s mental health. Whether you run a small firm or a multinational corporation, the constant need to be switched on can leave you feeling listless and below par. If you add important client lunches, booze-laced networking events, inconsistent sleep patterns and a lack of relaxation time, the demands of being the boss can take a physical toll too, causing increases in weight, blood pressure and cholesterol.
Many simply accept this as a necessary aspect of their role – crucial, indeed, to growing a business. But countless studies have shown that better health leads to better productivity, which can only be a good thing for the bottom line.
“High achievers often prioritise everything but themselves,” says performance nutrition consultant Laurent Bannock. “They travel through different time zones, hold meetings in restaurants and stay on their phones late into the night. As a result, they do little exercise, they don’t sleep enough and they’re starved of nutrients from a balanced diet, all of which restricts their immune systems. Never switching off can lead to burn-out.”
Coined as a scientific term in 1974 by US psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, “burn-out” refers to the state of chronic stress that leads to exhaustion. It doesn’t just give rise to problems such as fatigue, loss of appetite and vulnerability to viral infections; it can have alarming effects on a sufferer’s mental health. Overwhelmed cognitive skills lead to anxiety and reduced memory, focus and creativity – not a recipe for high productivity.
Research recently published by neurologist Ivanka Savic at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm shows that exhaustion owing to ongoing occupational stress changes the neural circuits in the brain, thinning out the frontal lobe, which is vital for cognitive functioning. It seems that the brains of the overworked are ageing more quickly.
“It’s a vicious circle,” Bannock says. “The busier CEOs become and the less time they have, the more they prioritise work over self-care. They know their priorities need to shift, but these often shift in the wrong direction. They drink lots of coffee for energy in the day, then alcohol at night to wind down. They take cars to get somewhere quicker, meaning that they don’t gain the health benefits of walking. They think they are coping, but running on empty like this prevents the body, brain and nervous system from recovering adequately, which means that their thinking becomes slower. Their clarity and creativity decreases and they might make bad decisions, which is not good for them or their business.”
The very habits that fall by the wayside during a busy period at work – such as regular exercise and proper sleep – can help the body and mind to cope better with the added pressure.
“It may be the last thing an exhausted exec wants to do, but the best way to restore energy is exercise,” says Dan Roberts, a strength and conditioning coach. “Not only does it release dopamine, which makes you feel happy; it also aids concentration by increasing blood flow to the brain, sharpening your awareness.”
It also boosts sleep quality, enabling cells to rest and repair, according to Bannock. “When you’re deprived of sleep you can’t function in a clear, coherent way. If someone ran a marathon every day, the stress on their body would eventually become greater than its ability to recover – meaning that they would perform less efficiently,” he says. “Mentally battling all day without rest, as business leaders often do, has the same effect on the brain.”
Of course, one of the main factors that leaders cite for neglecting themselves is a lack of time. But the productivity key, research suggests, is not to work longer hours. In a study of consultants by Erin Reid, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, managers could not tell the difference between employees who’d worked 80 hours a week and those who simply pretended to have done so. And there was no evidence that those who had worked longer hours actually achieved more.
Here are five tips from Bannock on boosting health to improve productivity.
1 Sleep smarter
If you travel a lot or can’t sleep enough at night, take a 20-minute nap during the day. It can help to improve your mood, alertness and performance. And turn off all screens at least an hour before bed. Studies have shown that being exposed to the blue light emitted by phones, laptops and other electronic gadgets at night prevents our brains from releasing melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone.
2 Eat natural
You really are what you eat. If you eat rubbish, you’ll feel it. Make five minutes in the morning to prepare a healthy breakfast to take to work, such as a low-fat yoghurt with a tub of berries and seeds, rather than grabbing something on the way in. Prepare a lunch of smoked salmon and a bean salad that can be eaten cold too. If you don’t always have time for lunch, keep some high-energy snacks, such as almonds and apples or bananas and cheese chunks, handy. This should help you to avoid grazing on highly processed foods.
3 Turn off the tech
CEOs are available 24/7, thanks to mobile gadgetry, but you must learn to switch off. Assign the first hour of your working day to reading and writing emails, then switch to more crucial tasks. Use an internet restriction app such as Freedom, which takes you offline for up to eight hours, so you can’t procrastinate on social media. And turn on your voicemail after work hours.
4 Get moving
You don’t have to go to the gym for hours to feel the benefits. As little as half an hour of walking a day can make a difference. Start off doing something simple to establish a daily habit, such as going for a 20-minute walk, then build up to 30, then a jog, then a run. Get an exercise bike or treadmill at home and do 20 minutes of interval training, alternating between bouts of fast and slow movement. It will soon be routine.
5 Schedule, schedule, schedule
Stick to a rigid set of working hours – 9am to 6pm, say. Unless it’s an emergency, leave the office on time. When you don’t give yourself the option of extra hours, you’ll be amazed at how much more you get done.
More on mental health
Visit iod.com/mentalhealth to access IoD resources relating to mental health in the workplace