Tips for HR Leaders: Six Simple Ways to Support Staff Health and Work Performance

Executives and HR leaders can optimize their work-life health — and that of their staffs — by making changes around the office that impact six key areas of daily life. Sounds pretty good, right? Here’s how.

Illustration of an outline of a woman at a standing desk with an apple and reusable water bottle.

Executives and HR leaders can optimize their professional lives and personal health — and that of their staffs — by making changes around the office that impact six key areas of daily life. Sounds pretty good, right?

Beth Frates, MD, who has been a Harvard Medical School (HMS) faculty member since 1996 and is the president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, helps executives optimize the “pillars” of Lifestyle Medicine to maximize their performance at work. Those pillars are nutrition, exercise, sleep, stress resiliency, positive social connection and avoidance of risky substances. Paying attention to healthy choices in those realms can help leaders support the health and productivity of themselves and their teams.

“When you exercise, you lower your stress levels and release ‘feel good’ endorphins,” Dr. Frates said. “When your nutrition is healthy and balanced, you can maintain a steady state of glucose. When you enjoy seven hours of sound sleep, you can stay focused, be mindful, connect and collaborate with people in a deep way.” 

Dr. Frates recommends that HR and office leadership start with some specific small changes to help their employees see big gains at work:

#1 Nutrition: Stock the office (or virtual offices) with healthier snacks for increased energy.

What we eat has a direct relationship to our overall health and well-being. Unfortunately, work environments aren’t always conducive to following a healthy diet. Easy-to-grab processed foods provide a quick hit of sugar, causing a rapid spike in blood glucose and insulin, which can lead to fat storage. About an hour after consuming a sugary snack, a person’s blood glucose can drop again, leading to a craving for another sweet snack. Throughout the day, an individual can go through this sugar cycle several times: consuming simple carbs for a quick fix, but not satiating hunger for long.

HR leaders can support their own health and that of their teams by offering healthier snacks — ones with protein and complex carbs — at meetings and in vending machines. In a similar vein, companies can encourage remote workers to maintain healthy eating habits by providing them with information and guidance.

#2 Exercise: Encourage your staff to take walking meetings to boost creativity.

A study from Stanford tested out-of-the-box thinking when subjects were sitting for 20 minutes versus walking for 20 minutes. The results were remarkable — creative thinking increased 63% when walking.

For virtual or small in-person meetings where visuals aren’t needed, leaders should encourage their teams to put in headphones and go audio-only while walking outside – and adopt the same practice themselves.

#3 Sleep: Promote healthy sleep habits among your staff so they can perform at their best.

Sleep is hugely important for performing at work, but it rarely gets the credit it deserves. The seven to eight recommended hours of shut-eye each night make it possible to be productive and successful the next day. Research shows that sleep delays or interruptions can cause sluggishness, low attention span, poor memory retention, decreased sociability, increased hunger and more — and no, an extra cup of coffee will not offset a poor night of sleep.

If employees feel that scheduling in seven hours of sleep is impossible, encourage them to start by going to bed 30 minutes earlier and pay attention to their energy levels at work — nodding off during the day is the body’s signal that it needs more rest. In some cases, sleep problems are related to stress.

#4 Stress resiliency: Teach your staff to employ stress management techniques to think more clearly.

When people get stressed, the body responds by hunching over, compressing the lungs and taking shallow breaths. News flash — that posture will increase feelings of stress and may activate the sympathetic nervous system (think fight, flight or freeze), limiting the ability to think clearly.

Stress management techniques, like taking a walk, listening to music or taking deep breaths, can help leaders get through anxiety-provoking moments. The 4-7-8 breathing technique is a popular and quick one — you inhale for four counts, hold for seven and exhale for eight.

Executives can model the importance of stress management by implementing stress management techniques and discussing those practices around the office.

#5 Social connections: Model the importance of taking digital breaks while at home to improve concentration at work.

Social connections and work performance are more intertwined than they may appear. Ever have an argument with your spouse and then feel distracted all day? That’s why home life, and positive relationships at home, matter for professional success. Having enjoyable family and social lives helps leaders unplug from the office — a counterintuitive but critical part of being productive at work.

Leaders can practice setting small boundaries to protect sacred time at home from constant emails and other interruptions. Daily phone-free family dinners may be a good place to start.

#6 Avoidance of risky substances: Offer non-alcoholic drink options at work events to improve overall health.

Alcohol and tobacco can be touchy topics, but the research speaks for itself. The use of tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption can increase the risk of chronic disease and death. Even moderate alcohol consumption disrupts sleep. The National Institutes of Health recommends limiting intake to a maximum of two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women. 

If your company’s work events tend to include mostly alcoholic drinks, start offering non-alcoholic options – alcohol-free beer and wine have come a long way — and try one yourself. You’ll probably feel better in the morning, which will set you up for success throughout the workday.

Whether Dr. Frates is talking to corporate executives, medical students or her own kids, the bottom line is obvious — adopt the six pillars. By making healthier choices in these areas of daily life, business leaders at all levels can optimize their professional lives and personal health and see results like heightened concentration, increased energy, better mood and reduced stress.

For a deeper dive on the six pillars of lifestyle medicine and to learn how to develop evidence-based nutrition plans and motivate lifestyle changes, learn more about our executive education program, “Health and Wellness: Designing a Sustainable Nutrition Plan.” This 8-week online training program commences on March 16, 2023, and will be led by Dr. Frates.

Health and wellness have never been more important. Provide your team with trustworthy, evidence-based health information that will enable them to perform at their best. Explore our wide variety of Harvard Health Publishing e-learning courses or consider working with us to design a custom content solution for your company. Learn more about custom health content and licensing solutions.