- Unhealthy diets are associated with lower productivity, while healthy diets can boost productivity.
- Other health factors like smoking, lack of exercise, and stress also tend to decrease productivity in the workplace.
- A healthy diet can result from group efforts, slow transitions, a focus on fruits and veggies, and occasional cheating.
- This article is for managers and employees who are curious about how what they eat affects their work – and how to make meaningful changes.
Unhealthy diets, smoking and a lack of exercise are cutting down on how much employees accomplish each day, according to studies from 2012, 2015 and 2021. We’ll explore key data from each study on the correlation between unhealthy diets and lower productivity, and provide actionable steps you and your team can take toward a healthier diet and higher productivity.
2012 Population Health Management study
In 2012, a Population Health Management study surveyed 19,803 employees working at three large, geographically dispersed companies. The study – conducted by researchers from Brigham Young University, the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) and the Center for Health Research at Healthways – revealed that unhealthy individual lifestyle choices might result in substantial losses from productive work time.
Health, diet and exercise factors
Specifically, the study found that employees with an unhealthy diet were 66% more likely to experience a loss in productivity than those who regularly ate whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Additionally, employees who exercised only occasionally were 50% more likely to report lower productivity than employees who were regular exercisers, while smokers were 28% more likely to suffer from a drop in productivity than nonsmokers.
The research also revealed that employees who had difficulty exercising during the workday were 96% more likely to have a productivity drop. Furthermore, those who did not believe their work environment would support them in becoming physically and emotionally healthier were more likely to see their productivity decrease.
“Our research confirms that employee productivity loss is associated with low well-being, poor health behaviors, elevated health risks, and the presence of chronic disease,” said Dr. James Pope, vice president and chief science officer for Healthways. “This information is significant because the number of employees with excess body fat, poor diets, diabetes, and sedentary lifestyles has risen to unprecedented levels in the nation.”
Key takeaway: Studies show that unhealthy diets can result in productivity dips at work.
Other factors that decrease productivity
The research found that several other work-related and personal factors contributed to decreased productivity, such as employees not having enough time to perform job duties, having insufficient technological support, and worrying about money.
The study also revealed that productivity loss was highest among employees ages 30 to 39 and lowest among those 60 and older. It was more prevalent among women than men, and more pronounced among those who were separated, divorced, or widowed than with their married colleagues.
The report found that clerical or office workers in the service and transportation industries experienced the highest productivity loss, while those in the farming, forestry, fishing, construction and mining industries had the lowest levels. Offering health insurance to your employees can be a way to help them improve their lifestyles.
“It’s critical that companies look deeper at productivity loss and measure it to understand the impact it is making on their bottom line,” said Jerry Noyce, CEO of HERO. “Business leaders have the ability to reduce the factors that significantly impact productivity loss by implementing comprehensive, best-practice workplace wellness programs focused on well-being improvement, which in turn can lead to improvements in employee satisfaction, productivity, and profitability for employers.”
Tip: To find your most productive work time, pay attention to your daily habits, energy and focus levels. Then, identify obstacles interfering with your time management.
2015 British Journal of Health and Psychology study
A 2015 British Journal of Health and Psychology study analyzed the effects of fruit and vegetable consumption on feelings of engagement, meaning and purpose. You could argue that these feelings don’t directly affect workplace productivity, but imagine your least engaged employee. Chances are they’re not getting much done. This study suggests that if they ate more fruits and vegetables, that could change.
Among a sample of 405 adults, 13 days of increased fruit and vegetable consumption led to more creativity, curiosity and well-being. Very few unhealthy foods led to these positive feelings.
The implication is clear: Employees who eat better are more productive.
FYI: As a manager, you can also boost engagement at work by providing a good employee experience, taking care to make employees feel valued.
2021 Journal of Applied Psychology study
According to a 2021 Journal of Applied Psychology study, nighttime unhealthy eating choices result in less productivity the next day.
Among 97 full-time employees tracked over 10 days, those who ate unhealthy foods the night before work were more likely to avoid work-related situations. They were also less likely to offer help or go above and beyond for their teammates and supervisors. These disengaged employees – of course – were less productive.
Key takeaway: Unhealthy nighttime eating can decrease your productivity the next day.
How to achieve a healthy diet that boosts your productivity
Health and diet are clearly correlated with productivity. What might not be as clear is a set of realistic, achievable steps you can take to change your diet. After all, diets are tough to stick to in the long run.
Here’s how to make a lasting shift to a healthy diet:
- Ease into it. Nobody’s expecting you to empty your fridge of all unhealthy food overnight. After all, a rapid transition is sure to knock you off balance. Instead, next week, try swapping out a few of your typical meals for healthy ones. Every subsequent week, increase how many meals you swap out for healthy choices. Eventually, you’ll be eating mostly – if not entirely – healthy.
- Add fruits and vegetables slowly. More than any other food group, fruits and vegetables are packed with vitamins and minerals that power your body and mind. However, not everyone loves fruits and veggies, so as you transition to a healthy diet, add small amounts of each to your typical meals. A burger can be healthier with a side salad of kale, roasted carrots and sliced strawberries, for instance. Eventually, you’ll want to replace the burger with something healthy altogether.
- Don’t go it alone. Healthy diets can be tough to stick to on your own. To make it a team effort, set up an employee health and wellness program. You could even couple it with the best employee monitoring software to see who’s actively researching healthy changes. (Read our SentryPC review for an example of this software.) Since workplace meals can improve productivity, arrange healthy communal lunches. Through your wellness program, encourage your team to eat healthy and track their habits alongside your own. Openly discuss your victories and struggles to help and inspire one another. A permanent shift in health and diet can benefit everyone.
- Cheat occasionally. Eating a healthy diet doesn’t have to mean saying no to a slice of chocolate cake once in a while. Occasional junk and sweets won’t ruin your health – it’s eating them in excess that’s the problem. So go ahead and enjoy the treats at the next party. You deserve it!
Chad Brooks contributed to the writing and reporting in this article.