Corporate well-being consultant Sarah Harmer tells a story that illustrates how much energy levels can impact decision-making at work. Research in Israel looked at over 1000 parole decisions made by eight judges.
"The likelihood of getting parole depended on the time of day and when the judges had eaten," Harmer says. "First thing in the morning there was a 65 per cent chance of getting parole. By lunchtime there was a zero per cent chance and after lunch there was again 65 per cent. By the end of the day it had dropped to zero. When energy levels are high you are open to possibility, when they are low you go to default, which is more likely to be negative. We become risk averse and shut things down."
Maintaining energy levels is not as obvious as it may seem; there are multiple factors involved, such as healthy eating, sleeping enough, taking regular breaks, moving around, doing exercise and spending time with colleagues and friends. The outcome is improved resilience and gains in productivity.
Harmer's internet-based health and wellness programmes for organisations aims to help people make small changes to their lifestyle. Workplace culture is a key factor. She says in New Zealand people tend to work longer hours and not take breaks.
"People are social and want to fit in. Health behaviours are impacted by the culture we live in so if the norm is to work through your lunch break and have back-to-back meetings this will affect employees' ability to change."
Weight gain, stress, depression, anxiety and fatigue among the working population are issues that she says Tony Schwartz cites in The Energy Project.
"We too often view the opposite of "doing" as "not doing", and then demonise inaction. In fact, good judgment grows out of reflection, and reflection requires the sort of quiet time that gets crowded out by the next demand," Schwartz says in his blog.
Harmer's programme gets people moving more, using a pedometer to count the 10,000 steps they aim for every day.
"We know that prolonged sitting is not good for you - not just from a structural point of view - giving a bad back. It also affects metabolism. After five hours sitting people get an exaggerated glucose and insulin response, which affects the ability to burn fat. Two minutes of exercise is enough to counteract this effect and taking regular breaks during the day."
One hundred and fifty challenges encourage people to move around, to eat good quality, whole grain carbohydrates and fats (eg. nuts, avocados, fish) and to sleep well. Reducing coffee intake helps as does getting a dose of sunshine. Sunshine boosts serotonin, which the body changes to the sleep-inducing melatonin.
People's sugar intake has increased over the past 50 years, along with an increase in type 2 diabetes. Harmer says some organisations provide fresh fruit, which is associated with lower risk of the disease. Vending machines in workplaces are full of junk food, caffeine rich and sugary drinks. She suggests workplaces stock alternatives. And a suggestion for staff celebrations - rather than a high carb, sugar rich morning tea - why not hold a healthy shared lunch?
In an information rich environment she says the potential for overload and fatigue is huge.
"Our brain needs constant breaks, we can focus well for around 90 minutes so we need to make sure people take breaks and also be mindful of how much information we pass on eg. via emails."
Digital detox is also beneficial - detaching ourselves from the devices that keep us "busy" with to-do lists. And multi-tasking is a myth she says - "nobody is good at it - every interruption makes tasks take longer - you lose concentration and miss errors at work when there is too much going on. Focusing on one thing at a time is best."
Connecting with other people is important for psychological well-being. A favourite activity that ticks several boxes involves making an appointment with a friend after work for a walk.
"Exercise raises the physiological response to stress - the fight/flight reaction. It's important for memory and learning. Cognitively you are sharper and emotionally more stable. It improves the ability to pay attention to health and safety at work. Meeting a friend gives you an emotional boost - and you also miss the peak hour traffic."
Psychologist Gaynor Parkin says a new wave of research helps people become resilient and keep well, physically and mentally. She bases her practical training programmes on neuroscience, positive psychology and other theories.
"People often ask us - does being highly resilient mean I can cope with anything? And the answer is no. Part of resilience is being able to say - this isn't all right. If my boss is bullying me a resilient person doesn't put up with it but rather takes some action to do something about it."
Resilience is often called "mental toughness", a label she finds unhelpful and expressed better by words such as flexible, flourishing and thriving. Rather than toughing out work through the day without a lunch or even a toilet break, she says being resilient means looking after all of a person's needs. But changing ingrained habits that drain energy and stress the body and mind takes time. Chronic stress is bad and scientists believe the link is cortisol.
"Cortisol is what keeps you going through stress but it lays down scaffolding in the brain, which changes the way it works - the structure and connectivity. Cortisol interferes with the brain's pre-frontal cortex - it does the prioritising, delegating, the weighing up of information, strategic and creative thinking - all the skills people use in their day-to-day role."
One organisation agreed on two-hour quiet periods in the day during which no meetings are booked.
"This was the time when everyone was going to do strategic, focused pre-frontal cortex type work. They also gave a challenge to everyone to have 30 minutes out of the office every day. They were trying to reinstate a lunch break idea. People report they feel more energetic and less overwhelmed by establishing a very simple habit."