Reinventing the Workplace – Creating an Environment for Optimal Health and Productivity – Part 1

By Jon Rumens on 20 January 2020

The modern workplace is evolving. It’s an undeniable fact. In many companies, employees have gotten more freedom to organize their work in a way that suits them best. The only catch seems to be that you have to deliver. How you do it is completely up to you.

All this is fine, of course, but in some ways it’s still limited. It gives employees freedom without offering them guidance to go along with it. More specifically, while the way we organize our workday becomes more liberated, the rituals and environments in which we work tend to stay the same.

Even more specifically, our workplaces aren’t yet specifically engineered towards good health. There are some key flaws in the way our work environment is designed that limit us from aging gracefully and living out our retirement without much physical ailment.

Most of us are supposed to work well past sixty years old, so it’s not unreasonable to expect some maintenance along the way.

Today, I’d like to talk about a few key elements that the standard workplace is equipped with that are in dire need of change.

Download this article as a PDF

Get a headstart – are you over-reliant on caffeine?

I’m going to start by talking about coffee. It’s what most of us use to kickstart our day and get going. It’s the morning ritual that the vast majority of employees have in common.

Nothing wrong with coffee in itself. There are numerous studies that document the vast amount of health benefits that coffee brings. Yet, there can be too much of a good thing.

To delve a bit deeper into this, we have to explain how coffee works to keep us alert and focused.

As you probably know, coffee contains a substance called caffeine, which is a potent stimulant. Caffeine works partially by blocking certain receptors in our brain, called adenosine receptors. Adenosine, in turn, is a substance that builds up during the day, over time, and is supposed to make us sleepy by the time night arrives. Caffeine is a substance that is very similar to adenosine, and because of that, it is able to fit the adenosine receptors, blocking adenosine from doing its job. This in turn keeps us awake and focused.

For many people, a cup of coffee is an essential piece of workplace equipment

Here’s the catch: our brain adapts to this situation, and creates more adenosine receptors, which requires us to drink more coffee to get the same effect. Over time, where one cup of coffee used to suffice to keep us up and running the entire day, we keep needing more and more.

This has another nasty side effect: it actually lowers our baseline of focus and wakefulness.

Whereas before you starting drinking coffee, you were feeling rather normal and just needed coffee to get that extra boost, after chronic caffeine consumption, you start out below normal and you need coffee every morning to get to your baseline again. There is no more extra boost.

Additionally, caffeine creates a feeling of energy by increasing levels of cortisol and other stress hormones in our body. When done chronically, every day, this isn’t very conducive to good health and can actually wear us down, making us more stressed and fatigued in the long run.

Obviously, not a great situation to be in. It’s not great for health, and it’s not great for productivity.

Does this mean you have to stop drinking coffee forever?

Short answer: no, not at all. We’re not that cruel. You see, the problem isn’t necessarily the coffee in itself, merely our chronic reliance on it. As we’ve said before, coffee has a myriad of health benefits, and when used responsibly, it can be a great tool to optimizing your workflow and helping you get things done.

What you do need to realize is that you have to give your brain and your body some time off now and then, to allow it to reset itself and its sensitivity to caffeine. Alternatively, you can also switch with a few other energy boosting drinks. Here are a few suggestions to implement if you’re a chronic caffeine junkie.

  • Go cold turkey for a month

The bad news is, if you’ve been drinking coffee (or tea) on a daily basis, it’s very likely your brain has undergone some negative adaptations that make you more prone to fatigue and lack of focus and mental clarity.

The good news is, this is a situation that can be easily reversed. If you cut coffee for a while, your brain does a reset and goes back to baseline. Even just quitting for a month should be more than sufficient.

Even better news is, after that month is over, you’re going to notice that your cup of coffee is much more effective, and you’ll need way less of it to function optimally.

During your month of abstinence, decaf is totally fine, by the way.

  • Cycle your caffeine usage

Even after you’ve done a hard reset in accordance with point 1, there’s still the risk of relapse. Over time, if you don’t give your brain a break from your renewed coffee habit, you’re going to build up tolerance again, and you’re back to square one.

You can then either do a hard reset again, and go an entire month without caffeine for a second time, or you can make things a bit less harsh on yourself, and cycle your usage.

For example, to make sure you get that extra boost during your workdays, you could consume coffee Monday to Friday, and give your brain a well-deserved rest in the weekend, and on your other days off.

This will significantly limit the negative adaptations to your brain and offer your body some respite from the daily surge of stress hormones.

  • Try out some adaptogenic teas instead

I believe that part of our so-called caffeine addiction isn’t necessarily do to a dependance on the substance itself, but also simply a habit of drinking a warm beverage. Therefore, our daily coffee habit is just that, a habit. Habits are pretty hard to get rid of, but we can try to fool our brains by replacing coffee with another hot beverage.

Ideally, you might want to try out an adaptogenic tea.

Replacing your coffee habit with adaptogenic teas can make a world of difference in both your energy and your stress levels

Adaptogens are herbs that have been scientifically proven to increase our energy, our resistance to stress and our general health. While they don’t provide that instant jolt of anxious energy and hyperactivity that caffeinated beverages give us, they do increase our natural energy production, without taking a heavy toll on our body.

Examples of adaptogenic herbs are: ashwaganda, ginseng and rhodiola rosea.

Note: just like with caffeine, adaptogens tend to lose their effectiveness if you use them continuously, so be sure to cycle them as well.

Lights, camera, action!

Another element that is notably absent in the modern workplace is light. Sure, you’ve got a few lamps and a dim computer screen, but compared to the outside environment, you’re just working in some dark cave.

To elaborate on this, we have to mention that the amount of light is measured in lux.

In a standard office with decent lighting, the amount of light you’d get in would be at most a few hundred lux. When you’re outside, on an overcast day, it’s easy to get over 10.000 lux. If it’s sunny and mid-summer, you can even go over 100.000 lux.

Now, you might ask: why does this even matter? As long as I can see and do my work, there’s no problem, right?

Not exactly. You see, light is an essential component in regulating our circadian rhythm. This is basically our body’s daily to-do list. Many people associate the circadian rhythm with sleep, because a dysfunctioning circadian rhythm can lead to sleep problems and insomnia.

However, what most people don’t realize is that your circadian rhythm is a key element to health. It basically comes down to the fact that there is hardly any biological process going on in your body that the circadian rhythm doesn’t play a part in.

Just some of the stuff your circadian rhythm does

This has certain consequences, namely that a dysfunctional circadian rhythm has massive negative effects on your health. A poorly functioning circadian rhythm has been linked to increased rates of cancer, impaired immune system function, heart disease and a whole range of other degenerative diseases. Pretty serious stuff, right?

And this is why light is so important. Light is the prime ‘zeitgeber’, one of the cues that your brain uses to tell time and set circadian rhythm. When light enters our eyes, a signal is passed on to a part of our brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which you can think of as the main circadian clock. This resets our circadian rhythm and keeps all our biological processes running in perfect synchrony.

Light gives our brain the signal that it’s day, darkness tells us it’s night. Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Here’s the problem: in the modern workplace, light is nearly absent. Unless you have the good fortune to work outside (like a farmer or a construction worker), it’s likely that you spend your work time in what is the biological equivalent of a dark cave. This will not only impair your sleep quality (and hence, how rested and focused you’ll be in the morning) but will also deteriorate your health over an extended period of time, leading to increased risk in getting the ailments listed above.

This office might seem well lit, but biologically speaking, it’s still the equivalent of the Batcave

Aside from that, exposure to enough light also makes us wakeful and active, which can have an effect on productivity, not unlike a good cup of coffee.

Unfortunately, this is also one of the aspects we have the least control over. It’s difficult to work outside if you’ve got a desk job, and the individual worker has little control over the lighting in his office or workspace.

However, there are some things you can do to improve your situation.

  • Walk to the workplace

Even though you’ll be stuck inside for 8 hours during your workday, in the hour leading up to that, you might have some control over your light exposure. If your situation allows it, you could forego public transport or your car and travel to work on foot or bicycle. This will give you at least a decent bit of light in the morning, which for circadian rhythm reasons is the most important time to get your light exposure. The additional movement you get is also effective in improving your circadian health and burns some calories – so it’s a triple win.

  • Get outside at lunch time

Most people opt to stay inside to eat their lunch. That’s unfortunate, because lunch break gives you a fair amount of time to get some extra light exposure. Instead of staying inside, consider trying a walking lunch, and get out in the open air. Alternatively you could eat your lunch outside, just sitting on a bench. This strategy alone could give you half an hour to an hour of extra light exposure (depending on long your break lasts).

  • Get a lightbox

Since you can’t get outside, there’s not much hope of bringing sunshine into your workday. However, there are alternatives. Even though your indoor lighting sucks, you can buy a special lightbox that emits powerful blue light. You can put this on your desk and place it next to you. These lightboxes usually emit around 10.000 lux, which, while not exactly a perfect replacement for natural light, is still way better than the measly few hundreds lux you get from your office light.

More on workplace improvement, later on…stay tuned!