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Five science-backed ways to improve your health at work

Happy creative designer stretching with closed eyes, working on laptop computer in office work
Making small day-to-day changes can have a significant and positive impact on our health at work. Photo: Getty (Prostock-Studio via Getty Images)

Let’s face it, many aspects of our work lives aren’t conducive to good health.

For those of us who do desk work, sitting for long periods is known to increase our risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and other conditions. Others may struggle with their posture — which can lead to aches and pains — or their stress levels, which can contribute to mental health issues like anxiety and insomnia.

Larger organisations may offer employees wellbeing benefits — like free fruit or afternoon yoga sessions — but the jury is out on whether these schemes actually improve our health.

A study of more than 30,000 employees at a warehouse retail company in the US found that those exposed to a wellness programme reported no significant differences in absenteeism or job performance — although they did exhibit more positive health behaviours, like engaging in regular exercise.

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Moreover, research suggests corporate wellness schemes may only have an impact on people who are already healthy — and isolate people who are struggling with their physical or mental health.

Read more: How to turn a 'quiet promotion' into more money at work

Considering we spend an average of around 90,000 hours at work, making small day-to-day changes can have a significant and positive impact on our health. So here are five ways to improve your health at work that are backed by science.

Take regular breaks

The busier we are, the less likely we are to take regular breaks — but when we’re overwhelmed and stressed, disconnecting from work is more important than ever.

A systematic review of 80 studies on workplace breaks found that pausing work throughout the day can help us get more done, boost our performance and most importantly, improve our wellbeing.

Taking breaks helps us recharge and give our minds and bodies a chance to recover from the demands of work.

Stress triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine which leads to physiological changes like a faster heartbeat and shallow breathing, allowing us to react quickly to potential dangers. But when we’re in this fight-or-flight mode, functions that aren’t essential to survival — like decision-making — are halted.

Read more: How women can overcome salary negotiation anxiety

Our bodies can cope with short bursts of stress. However, when this response is triggered repeatedly — for example, in a stressful job — it can lead to health problems. Prolonged stress has been linked to headaches, digestive issues, high blood pressure and an increased risk of stroke and heart disease, as well as anxiety and depression.

The good news is that taking a short break to relax, whether it’s a walk or a stretch, can help disrupt the body's stress response cycle. However, it’s important to take longer breaks away from work too to allow yourself to properly recharge.

Three colleagues sit outside on a sunny day and enjoy a takeaway lunch and some hot drinks. They are comfortable with each other, having a light hearted discussion.
Connecting with your coworkers can help relieve stress, especially if you’re able to talk through issues that are worrying you or vent about your frustrations. Photo: Getty (Catherine Falls Commercial via Getty Images)

Connect with your colleagues

You probably don’t get along with everyone at work, but there may be a few people who you can chat to over lunch or a coffee. Connecting with your coworkers can help relieve stress, especially if you’re able to talk through issues that are worrying you or vent about your frustrations.

Having a strong social support network at work can have a positive impact on your mental and physical health. It can help make you more resilient to stress, which will help you be more adaptable in the face of adversity. So if you do encounter problems that are outside of your control, like redundancy or problems with a manager, you’ll have more capacity to cope.

Additionally, it can also reduce the risk of significant health problems including depression and high blood pressure.

Exercise

Not everyone has a sedentary job, but for those that do, being inactive can seriously affect your health.

Read more: How performance-related pay affects our mental health

Sitting for long periods is thought to slow the body’s metabolism, which affects its ability to regulate blood sugar, blood pressure and break down body fat. This can lead to problems like obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and cancer.

It’s not easy to incorporate movement into a desk job, but there are easy ways to be more active.

You could try walking or cycling to work, doing an exercise class at lunch or going for regular walking breaks throughout the day. Getting moving will also help relieve the inevitable aches and pains — and eye strain — that come with sitting in front of a computer all day too.

Group of young people fit friends doing exercises in gym
Getting moving will also help relieve the inevitable aches and pains that come with sitting in front of a computer all day. Photo: Getty (nd3000 via Getty Images)

Focus on what you can control

Research into workplace culture has found that employees with higher levels of autonomy reported positive effects on their overall wellbeing, as well as higher levels of job satisfaction.

Essentially, being able to control what you do — to some extent — fulfils an innate need to control our lives.

Psychologists suggest that when we feel autonomous, we’re more likely to believe our needs, motivations and preferences are in alignment.

It’s not always possible to control all aspects of your job — and everyone has to do tasks they don’t like from time to time. However, focusing on the bits you can influence can help.

This might mean asking for flexible hours, a different location or home-working to suit you, or changing the pace of work or the order in which you do tasks.

Think about self-development

There is something to be said for going to work, doing your job and switching off at the end of the day.

Read more: How micro-stresses at work can affect your mental health

However, there is an intrinsic link between personal development and good psychological health. This is because growth prevents us from feeling like we’re stagnating in our careers, which in turn, helps boost life satisfaction. Expanding our skills can also help us feel more confident and build self-esteem, which can have a positive impact on other aspects of our lives.

You may be able to do a course of your choice through your employer, or you may want to start an evening class or part-time study. Self-development can be as simple as reading more or learning a new hobby — and you can choose something that fits in with your working day.

Watch: Five telltale signs of burnout

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