Mental health conditions are one of the leading causes of absenteeism in the UK workplace. One way in which employers can look to help cultivate good and consistent mental health amongst their employees can be in the food that they eat. Whether you believe it or not, everyone has a ‘second brain’ in their gut, and by keeping our bellies healthy with what we consume, we can influence our mental health for the short and long-term.
What is Mental Health?
Today’s conversation around mental health is at the forefront of most companies. It encompasses the psychological, emotional, and social wellbeing that an individual feels. It relates to how someone perceives their own potential, self-worth, satisfaction and happiness on an ongoing basis as well their ability to cope with the everyday challenges that life throws at us.
People in the UK spend on average 2,000 hours at work and therefore, this is likely to have a profound impact on both their mental and physical wellbeing. The workplace can be one of the most lucrative places to create healthy habits, simply because of the consistent place it holds in people’s lives.
Mental Health Issues should be of Concern to Employers and Here’s why …
One person’s mental health issues look entirely different to someones else. It can be a bout of severe panic attacks needing some sort of mental health guidance, or a lingering period of depression that was triggered by an adverse life event which can often resolve over time. Some more longer term forms of mental health are significant enough to be considered as clinically diagnosable and can be life changing for those involved.
Mental wellbeing issues have an astounding impact on UK businesses.
- Evidence suggests that 12.7% of all sickness absence days in UK can be attributed to mental health conditions.
- Last year, poor employee mental health cost UK employers £42bn
- Per head, the cost of mental health in UK companies is £1,300
- For every £1 spent on addressing an employee’s mental health, there is an ROI of up to £9
Although the conversation is changing, all to often there are many times today that poor mental health is dismissed or not considered to be warranting enough attention. Instead of preventing the issues from arising in the first place, companies still often fail to help a problem before it escalates. As we begin to understand medicine and a the benefits or a more holistic approach to our health, we must also consider the role the nutrition plays in this too.
The Relationship Between Physical and Mental Wellbeing
Those in the UK living with poor mental health are at a significantly increased risk or developing physcial health complications as well. Many people with impaired or reduced mental wellbeing engage in antisocial and unhealthy behaviours which are conducive to poor physical health – smoking, taking drugs, isolation, and unhealthy eating.
Practitioners often treat both mental and physical health as separate things but in reality, their relationship is entirely dependent on one another. A person with poor physical health might be more susceptible to mental health issues due to a lack of ability to do things friends are doing, fatigue, stress, or worry about their wellbeing. Covid-19 has been an enormous demonstration on how a reduction in our physical health has caused poor mental wellbeing to skyrocket.
Since the relationship between what we eat and what we drink and how we think and feel has been more scientifically proven than ever before, organisations now have a tangible way to help protect and improve their mental health efforts through food. Encouraging healthy eating habits at work is a great place to start …
Food and Thoughts
Our gut is made up of multi-trillion microbes all of which play a crucial role in regulating our health and wellbeing in several ways. In fact, it’s useful to know that the more microbes we have in our gut, the greater our bodies can work to boost our mental and physical wellbeing as we aren’t lacking a nutritional profile. These bacteria also assist in digestive processes, immune system support, the absorption and production of various important vitamins like D3 and vitamin K – all of which maintain a health central nervous system and provide us with a fuel source from food. Eating a variety of gut-boosting foods (link Josh article) is a great way to fight both chronic and mental illness, with the relationship between our sugar intake and the onset of Alzheimer’s and Type 2 Diabetes being a recognised by practitioners today.
One of our favourite pastimes here at Snackcess is to read ancient philosophy. Over 2,000 years ago, Hippocrates said that ‘all disease begins in the gut.’ Today we know that our gut is a ‘second brain’ – 90% of our Serotonin stores are produced there. How our gut feels plays a massive role in how our brain feels.
A healthy gut, a happier mind
You’d have heard the saying ‘butterflies in my stomach’ or, ‘a gut instinct.’ Or maybe you’ve heard someone say to you that ‘you are what you eat?’. Well in fact, these saying ring true today more than ever before.
These unusual to describe feelings in your stomach are real biological processes that show the relationship between our gut and brain far more closely than you’d think. Both our brains and our ‘second brains’ rely on hormones, transmitters, and electrical impulses through nerves in order to communicate with one another. If one is unhappy, the chances are that the other will be too. It’s like being with a friend that feels down.
The enteric nervous system (ENS) is the name given to our second brains. It can send and receive impulses & secretes neurotransmitters just like our central nervous system. It needs proper nutrition with foods rich in fiber and nutrients to strengthen. Exercise also goes a tremendous way in promoting healthy gut bacteria through a process called peristalsis. When our gut is not optimised, nor are we. It means we are not absorbing the nutrition from our food properly and the rest is wasted.
The best way to explain this relationship is to consider how being stressed makes you feel. Does ‘sick to your stomach’ ring any bells? Well stress can significantly alter the balance of bacteria in the intestine which often causes us to feel or even get ill when we are stressed. In the same way that we produce cortisol from the gut when stressed – often making us feel anxious and sick – we also produced many feel-good happier hormones from this place too. The best thing is, we can actually increase our feel-good stores with the food that we eat through a fancy chemical called Tryptophan. We must consider how we can best eat to support our second brains so that the first one feels supported too.
So what should we be eating for a healthy mind and body?
We need to first understand the hormones that make us feel good and the foods that enhance this:
Serotonin: Foods that are high in the essential amino acid tryptophan can boost our serotonin stores. High iron and protein rich foods tend to help such as salmon, eggs, nuts, chickpeas, or cottage cheese. A healthy carbohydrate like yams or sweet potatoes can help promote their absorption.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid: Foods that are rich in high levels of glutamine help with GABA levels, such as brown rice, spinach, broccoli, bananas, almonds, walnuts, gluten-free whole oats.
- Oily fish, high-fibre foods, and fermented foods like yoghurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha and tempeh can go a long way in increasing the good bacteria available in your gut and improve brain health.
- Probiotics, or live bacteria, and prebiotics are also good for a healthy gut and brain. Probiotics can be taken as a supplement of or in some of the foods listed about like Kefir, Kombucha and Tempeh. Live yogurt, asparagus, leeks onions and Jerusalem artichokes.
- Putting more leafy vegetables and plants into your diet can help build and maintain microbiota diversity.
How Can Employers Help?
By understanding the relationship between our gut and our brain, companies can begin taking proactive steps towards promoting health habits in the workplace. They will also reap the rewards of an engaged and motivated workforce in doing so.
Although it’s hard to splash out money on lavish buffets everyday, as well as expensive healthy foods listed above, employers should encourage staff to think more consciously about the decisions they make around what they eat. By encouraging employees to get up from their work stations when going for lunch, they will be making more conscious decisions about what they eat. When working from home however this becomes incredibly hard and as companies announce WFH plans until 2021, employers need to take new steps to ensure the health and wellbeing of their workers.
Employers can provide simple solutions to avoid unwarranted temptations to unhealthy eating both in the office and at home by making sure that their employees are well supported with healthy snacks and drinks. Staff will be satiated throughout the day, thus avoiding a craving for instant food, which often leads to poor choices. If this all seems a little too much then you can leave it to Snackcess to curate this all for you and deliver it to either offices or homes. Just place an order online or get in touch with one of our team and a box of healthy snacks are delivered directly to your workplace.
From personal experience, we’ve found that providing a variety of snacks to prevent boredom and having them freely available leaves no need to scramble for the right money or search them out, and to cater for all dietary requirements, food intolerances. All of this provides a great incentive for employees to become a little more conscious about their food choice in a very subtle and nuanced way. Our mission is to simplify healthy living and our snacks are the vehicle by which we do this.
All of this goes incredibly well with the provision of a good office or WFH culture. Consider the other things your company can do to incentivise a good culture. Visibly is one of the best office platforms out there at this moment in time that gives you full insight into the ways you can boost company culture and see where it may be lacking. The platform can be fully integrated and partners with several brands that can help you improve your both office and WFH culture.
The Effects of Poor Snacking Habits
The science is now definitive that diets high in refined sugars are bad for our health. Impaired brain function is now closely linked with a diet high in refined sugars and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders such as depression. As well as this, the diversity of our gut bacteria can be impaired by a high sugar diet.
Making poor food choices can result in an overall feeling of sluggish behaviour and can result in weight gain. This in turn leads absenteeism, health problems, letting clients down, missing deadlines, and ultimately stress. Absenteeism is one of the biggest cost to UK employers and has never been more important given the current pandemic we are living in.
It starts today …
Everyone knows the conventional 1 in 4 people will suffer from a mental health problem at any given time, but that is only those who seek help for it. There are millions of people in the UK currently suffering from poor mental health on all levels of a spectrum. To magnify this problem, Covid-19 has increased both the physical health problems and loneliness problems that exist in the UK.
Knowing that our brain affects our gut health and our gut affects our brain health, it’s time for employers to really look into nutrition programmes in order to boost mental wellbeing. Nutrition is vital for a healthy state of mind and with more and more delivery companies, it’s easier than ever for companies to look after the health of their employees. By creating mentally healthy company cultures, workforce participation rates can improve by up to 30%.