Fruit bowls instead of snack machines, Swiss balls replacing office chairs and boardroom tables resembling bar leaners are some of the changes businesses are making in order to reap the benefits of employee wellness.
Professor Grant Schofield, director of Public Health at AUT's Human Potential Centre, says it's important to nurture the brain and body for maximum health, well-being and productivity.
"Movement is an essential part of thinking, developing and creating, but it has been taken out of the modern workplace," he says.
"Physically moving stimulates the neuroplasticity in the brain needed to think and solve problems."
Height-adjustable desks and boardroom tables are a good idea, he says, as they promote standing, which brings an increase in energy and productivity. Schofield has built his own office furniture, including a tall stool that he calls an anti-ergonomic seat, "which is basically an uncomfortable seat. You can only perch on it for 10 minutes before you have to stand up again".
Schofield says brain function is affected by what we eat because our cells are built solely from the food we digest.
"Eat food, mostly plants, not too much," is his mantra. "And I mean real food, something that will rot in three days and be recognised by your grandma." He says for decades people were told to eat less fat and more carbs, but it's now recognised that for brain health, the main culprits are sugar and refined carbohydrates.
"The body produces the hormone insulin to get rid of sugar, and when insulin is constantly raised by a high sugar diet, it down-regulates neuroplasticity, brain function and quality of life - which is the ability to move and be energetic."
But Schofield has some good news for coffee-lovers - he says coffee helps the re-uptake of neuro-transmitters which improves cognition slightly, "up to a couple of cups. Beyond that it's inflammatory and causes further damage to the brain".
The brain also needs downtime, quality sleep and breaks during the day. According to our Circadian rhythm, says Schofield, humans should sleep at night, when our brain wave activity cycles in and out of two types of sleep - deep sleep and dream sleep.
Alcohol, sleeping tablets, snoring, shift work, flickering screens and troublesome pets and toddlers can prevent this natural cycle occurring. In deep sleep, which occurs mainly early in the night, the brain emits very little electrical activity and is able to rebuild itself.
Deprived of this phase, we have trouble with new memory.
Dream sleep, on the other hand, is critical for problem-solving and happens more towards the end of a night's sleep. In the daytime, it becomes all about the Ultradian rhythm. This is the idea that we have peaks and troughs throughout the day lasting roughly 90 minutes per cycle. We experience periods of concentration and productivity followed by lower-functioning periods.
Schofield says our Ultradian rhythms can guide us into getting up from the desk and taking time out, which is especially important for health and safety in the workplace.
The modern office is not designed to support "actual work", says Schofield. "If you need to solve ambiguous problems, be creative, and think of new things, then today's multi-tasking and multi-input office environment is the worst."
He says while there is some evidence that women are better at physically multi-tasking than men, when it comes to cognitive multi-tasking - which can best be defined as shifting attention away from things and then coming back - we are all equally bad at it. "If you're multi-tasking at work, with phone calls, emails, interruptions, you'll generally see a 50 per cent slower time to completion of the task, with 50 per cent more mistakes."
Schofield says some stress is good for the brain. "You feel stress, you recover, and this develops resilience." But if it all gets too much, "take a few deep breaths," he advises.
Finally, the brain needs excitement.
"Get out of your comfort zone and do something important," says Schofield. "And work towards things that make you happy."
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