From stressful meetings to sitting eight hours a day, working a desk job does not always make it easy to protect your health. But a few tweaks to your daily habits can boost both your health and your productivity.
Here are five simple things you can do to improve and maintain your physical, emotional and mental health, even from behind a desk.
1. Actively reduce stress
If your job causes you stress, you're not alone. According to a report released by the American Institute of Stress, nearly 50 percent of workers feel they need help managing job stress. Since stress is directly tied to health problems like heart disease and depression, lowering the anxiety you feel from work may be one of the best things you can do for your health.
Start with regular exercise, which research has found reduces stress hormones like cortisol and increases your sense of mental well-being. You can also improve stress levels by getting seven hours or more of sleep each night. Too little sleep can cause you to respond to stress in unhealthy ways, such as fighting with co-workers or lashing out at your supervisor. Regular sleep, by contrast, leaves you mentally alert and reduces cortisol levels.
Your personal relationships, both at work and at home, will also improve your mental health. According to a study published in 2005, workers in stressful jobs who had a strong social support network also had lower levels of work stress and related health problems. When you make time for family and form strong friendships both on and off the job, you improve your mental wellness and are more likely to cope with work stress in healthy, productive ways. [Want to be more productive at work? Develop these healthy habits.]
2. Get up and move
Staying at your desk for long stretches of time may seem like the best way to get a lot of work done, but in fact, the opposite is true. Research shows that regular breaks during the workday will keep you healthier and increase your productivity.
Any change of task can help you mentally reset for the next round of work, but getting outside and moving a little will provide the most health benefits. A study published by the University of Illinois found that even a few minutes outside every day can lower fatigue and increase your mental focus.
If you can't head outside, taking a movement break will still benefit your health. When you break up your day with movement and small bursts of exercise, you minimize the negative health effects of sitting, keep your heart strong and promote metabolic health. Try walking around the office, doing push-ups against a wall, standing during phone calls, or stretching out your back and legs after meetings.
3. Eat away from your desk
A 2012 survey by SCA and Tork found that 55 percent of women and 40 percent of men eat at their desks every day. If you're one of them, you are eating your lunch while surrounded by 400 times the number of germs that live on the seat of a public toilet.
When you eat at your desk, crumbs of food get stuck in your keyboard and other supplies. If you don't clean your desk regularly, these bits of food can grow millions of dangerous bacteria. Restaurants, break rooms and cafeterias, by contrast, are cleaned more regularly, making them healthier places to eat. Even better, if you eat your lunch outside, you can enjoy the health benefits that come from movement, a mental break and time spent outdoors.
4. Wash your hands
Advice to wash your hands may seem intended for children, but SCA/Tork found that many of the 2,100 adults they surveyed need to hear it too. Only 68 percent of respondents said they always wash their hands before meals, while 24 percent do so occasionally, 7 percent said they rarely do, and 1 percent of respondents admitted to never washing their hands before eating. Even worse, a third of men reported that they never washed their hands after using the bathroom.
Employees who don't wash their hands carry billions of germs into their workplaces every day. While you can't make your co-workers wash their hands, you can improve your own hygiene habits. Wash your hands regularly throughout the day to limit the bacteria you come into contact with during your workday, especially after shaking hands, using shared office equipment and using the restroom.
5. Unplug from the office
Your smartphone and email account may help you get a lot of work done, but they could also hurt your mental and emotional health if you don't set boundaries on when you use them.
A study of 385 employees found that being expected to answer work emails after hours caused chronic anticipatory stress and made it difficult for participants to detach from work. This led to lower levels of emotional and physical well-being, including high stress, poor sleep and mental exhaustion. A separate study, which was presented at the British Psychological Society's Division of Occupational Psychology, found that using a smartphone's push notifications could increase anxiety levels.
To improve your mental and physical health, find ways to unplug from work when you leave the office. Talk to your supervisor and co-workers about checking email less frequently, a strategy that has been shown to lead to lower stress and higher productivity. Let work calls go to voicemail and don't listen until the next morning.
When you get home at the end of the day, your health and your productivity with both benefit if you leave work at the door, shifting your mental focus to your personal life, friends and family.