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We know about the importance of good posture and taking regular screen breaks, but what else can we do to improve our workplace health? Etan Smallman asks some experts for their recommendations, from fidgeting to seeing red to shedding a few tears
Workplace health is important. Really important. At the extreme end, work-related diseases account for more than 160,000 deaths in high-income countries every year(1). In the UK alone, 12.5 million working days were lost due to work-related stress last year(2), while one study placed the cost of job-related illnesses to the US economy at $250 billion – exceeding those of all cancers(3).
What if there were small tweaks we could make to boost our health while at work? Below, the experts weigh in with their quick, easy – and often surprising – recommendations to improve your workplace well-being.
1. Beat dry eyes with coffee
A cup of coffee could do more than just wake you up in the morning – it’s also been hailed as the antidote to "computer vision syndrome," which afflicts vast numbers of office workers. When we stare at a screen, we spend less time blinking, which is the body’s way of refreshing the surface of the eye.
In 2012, researchers at the University of Tokyo’s School of Medicine(4) showed for the first time that caffeine can significantly increase the eye’s ability to produce tears, and increased "tear volume" means a coffee could be a great way of relieving office workers’ dry eyes.
Allon Barsam(5), consultant ophthalmic surgeon, also recommends slightly lowering the position of your computer monitor. “This brings your cornea, which is the bit of the surface of the eye that is the most sensitive, lower down,” he says. “This means it sits closer to where tears naturally accumulate, which is next to the lower lid. It means your eye rotates downwards a bit and you have more coverage of tears over the eye.”
2. Fidget to boost circulation
One of the major threats to workplace health is the vast number of hours we spend sitting. Standing desks and even treadmill desks have been found to burn calories and fight obesity(6).
But a bit of restlessness could also help. "Lower body fidgeting" – wiggling your toes and tapping your heels, in other words – can help reduce the loss of blood flow to your legs caused by sitting for long periods, which can lead to weight gain and diabetes. That is according to a report in the American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology(7).
“While we expected fidgeting to increase blood flow to the lower limbs, we were quite surprised to find this would be sufficient to prevent a decline in arterial function,” said Jaume Padilla, an assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri in Columbia, who led the study.
Getting out of your office chair and moving your whole body remains the ideal. “You should attempt to break up sitting time as much as possible by standing or walking,” Padilla said. “But if you’re stuck in a situation in which walking just isn’t an option, fidgeting can be a good alternative. Any movement is better than no movement.”
3. Embrace color to improve your mood
If you want to be happier and more efficient, find a way to cover up those white walls next to your desk. That’s the conclusion of a study conducted at the University of Texas in the US. Researcher Nancy Kwallek found that participants made more errors when surrounded by white, despite it being “the quintessential office color.”(11) Women in particular indicated more depression, confusion and anger in low-saturated office colors such as white, gray and beige.
You may be better off considering blue or red, depending on the type of work involved. Research at the University of British Columbia in Canada found red to be most effective in improving workers’ attention to detail (though a different study found it was linked to “higher negative mood characteristics”(12)) while blue enhances the ability to think creatively.(13)
And blue may be the best choice if your well-being is your top priority. “Through associations with the sky, the ocean and water, most people associate blue with openness, peace and tranquility,” said researcher Juliet Zhu. “The benign cues make people feel safe about being creative and exploratory. Not surprisingly, it is people’s favorite color.”
4. Boost your brain with computer games
Far from being a quick way to get you fired, playing computer games at work could be the secret to training your brain and increasing your output.
Chris Ferguson, a psychology professor who researches video games at Stetson University in Florida in the US, has found that gaming in the office can provide an outlet to help staff cope with jobs that could be stressful or boring(8). And researchers at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands found workers who played games such as Solitaire were more positive about their work and their job roles(9).
Dr. Cynthia Green, president of Total Brain Health(10), the largest provider of social-based brain-training programs in the US, says games played against the clock are the best at boosting workplace performance: “From a cognitive perspective, we know that the skills that most change with age – attention, focus, speed of processing, cognitive flexibility among them – are best ‘worked out’ when time pressure is part of the workout.”
5. Declutter your desk
“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” quipped Albert Einstein. However, when it comes to workplace health, you may be better off ignoring the physicist.
One study found that untidy desks are linked to a 77% decline in workers’ productivity and a 53% fall in their motivation(14). An organized desktop is also likely to make a better impression on your co-workers and clients(15) – the same survey found that more than half of people would think negatively of someone with a messy desk. The problem, according to a scientist at Princeton University(16), is that “multiple stimuli” restrict your ability to focus.
Kate Ibbotson of A Tidy Mind(17) says: “Messy workspaces can leave us feeling anxious, helpless and overwhelmed. It really helps productivity to have a clear desk as there is less to distract you and the space feels more appealing to be in. But be mindful that you should have everything you need close at hand. If you don’t, the items will end up on the desk anyway. So it really helps to have wall shelving or storage under your desk so you can use all the space around you to your advantage.”
Ibbotson, a spokesperson for the Association of Professional Organisers and Declutterers(18), recommends “a thorough purge.” She says: “Try out all your pens and chuck any that don’t work. Look for duplicates and donate surpluses to charity. Make a note of what you tend to overbuy as well as anything you need to purchase so you remain organized. To maintain your progress, invest in a shredder so you can shred as you go and keep a recycling box permanently by your desk.”
Etan Smallman is a UK-based journalist