Six lifestyle choices that can help employees manage stress and anxiety

Advice and top tips

Six lifestyle choices that can help employees manage stress and anxiety

Our lifestyles can be regarded as the cornerstones of our health, underpinning wellbeing or triggering physical or mental problems.

It is now widely acknowledged that healthy, sustainable, behavioural lifestyle changes can deliver meaningful psychological, emotional, and physical benefits.

With highly-stressed workers almost twice as likely to make unhealthy lifestyle choices, according to the Willis Towers Watson Global Benefits Attitudes Survey, employers can ill-afford to ignore these vital wellbeing building blocks.

Medical studies have demonstrated, for example, that stress and anxiety can result in a lack of sleep, while a lack of sleep can similarly lead to stress and anxiety. This, in turn, can lead to low energy levels, muscle tension, headaches – and, invariably, a decline in performance and productivity.

By introducing stress and health awareness education and initiatives, the quality of life of workforces can be significantly improved. Here we outline six key lifestyle choices that can help employees to better manage stress and anxiety.

Eat well, drink well

A well-balanced diet can help regulate the body’s sugar levels, which, in turn, can ensure the healthy functioning of our adrenal glands – responsible for releasing our stress response hormones.

Employees should consequently avoid consuming too much sugar and caffeine. Both having been proven to contribute to panic or anxiety attacks.

Caffeine can trigger higher levels of adrenalin and noradrenalin hormones, higher blood pressure and, in some cases, heart palpitations.

Sugar can act as an adrenal stimulant and according to NHS guidelines, ‘added sugars’ should make up no more than 5 per cent of the energy we get from food and drink each day. This equates to around 30g of sugar a day for those aged 11 and over.  Foods with added sugars, that should be minimised, include pastries, chocolate, cakes, and some fizzy and juice drinks.

Staying well hydrated is also important, helping to maintain lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Get active

Studies have demonstrated that physical activity can play an important role in promoting mental wellbeing. Scientists have found that aerobic exercise triggers chemical changes in the brain, which can lead to a more positive frame of mind.

Not only does exercise help moderate our stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, it also stimulates the production of endorphins. Endorphins can act as our body’s natural painkillers and pleasure boosters, acting on the opiate receptors in our brains to induce feelings of wellbeing.

Furthermore, exercise can improve our sleep quality, which in turns makes us less sensitive to stress and better able to cope.

So, while exercise won’t eradicate stress, it can help minimise emotional intensity and enable employees to deal with things with greater control, calmness and mental clarity.

Sleeping your way to less stress

When the body and mind is well rested, concentration levels are improved, judgment and decision-making is enhanced are our moods are better regulated. This, in turn, makes problem solving and dealing with stressful situations less challenging.

Conversely, a lack of sleep reduces energy levels and negatively impacts our mental clarity. Furthermore, not enough sleep will cause our bodies to increase the production of the stress hormones and make us more emotionally reactive.

Breaking what can become a vicious, ongoing cycle of stress and insomnia is therefore a priority. A number of different practices can be recommended to staff – from limiting use of light emitting digital devices, such as mobile phones, laptops and tables, before bedtime to warm, leisurely baths and relaxation techniques, such as mindfulness, deep breathing and meditation.

Stop smoking, relieve anxiety

Several studies have shown that, rather than helping people relax, smoking actually increases anxiety and tension.

Although nicotine can result in feelings of pleasure and relaxation as it triggers the release of dopamine – these feelings are invariably short lived. They are followed by nicotine withdrawal, which mirror the symptoms of anxiety.

Smoking also increases blood pressure, muscle tension and reduces the flow of oxygen to the brain.

The NHS points out that people with mental health problems, including anxiety, depression and schizophrenia, are much more likely to smoke than the general population. Its advice is categorical – while the physical risks of tobacco smoking are widely recognised, quitting smoking will also improve mood and reduce anxiety.

The alcohol myth

Employees suffering stress and anxiety will sometimes turn to the depressant and sedative effects of alcohol, believing it to be an effective antidote.

Rather than reaching for a drink, however, employees should be encouraged to find alternative ways to unwind.

Although alcohol can help to temporarily reduce tension, within just a few hours of consumption it can also lead to increased levels of anxiety.

Moreover, in addition to risking damage to physical health, excessive alcohol consumption can result in a rewiring of the brain by disrupting the delicate balance of its chemicals and processes.

This can then make us more susceptible to stress and anxiety – and in some cases, the interference with our brains’ neurotransmitters can lead to long-term mental health problems.

Work-life balance

According to EU statistics, at their principal place of work, UK employees work the longest hours in Europe. ‘Always on’ technology serves to exacerbate this issue, blurring the lines between work life and home life.

In circumstance where work is causing excess stress, a work-life balance that prevents employees from spending time doing things they enjoy can heighten stress and anxiety issues.

Employees should be encouraged to set aside quality ‘me time’ and to engage in activities to help them relax. The Global Benefits Attitudes Study from Willis Towers Watson found, for example, that 69 per cent of UK workers will indulge themselves or use retail therapy to help them cope with stressful periods at work.

Studies have also shown that laughter can have a significant impact in buffering the effects of psychological stress. Socialising and having fun with friends and family can consequently go a long way in helping employees ease the pressures of work.