How nutrition can boost employee mental health and your bottom line

The economic impact of mental health

Employers can play a crucial role in improving their team’s mental health by steering employees towards making well-informed dietary decisions and fostering a workplace culture that prioritizes nutrient-rich foods.

The economic consequences of poor mental health are profound; a staggering financial burden of $193.2 billion on the US economy and $1 trillion on the global economy. These costs stem from lost productivity, increased absenteeism, and heightened turnover, highlighting the significance of addressing mental health issues in the workplace.

How mental health impacts Generation Z and millennials

According to the 2024 State of Healthy Eating and Wellbeing Report, mental health emerges as a pressing concern for Generation Z and millennials. An alarming 81% expressed willingness to quit their jobs immediately due to stress, while 69% believed they could enhance their productivity if their employer prioritized their wellbeing

Gen Z and millennials are placing a strong emphasis on personal wellbeing and mental health. And organizations, including Amazon, Gympass, PayPal, and GE, are already adopting a nutrition-first strategy to improve their teams’ mental, physical, and emotional health, and foster greater workplace satisfaction and productivity.

Benefits of encouraging a workplace culture

Encouraging a workplace culture that prioritizes nutrition has various benefits for employees’ mental wellbeing, including improved mood and energy levels, reduced stress and anxiety, enhanced cognitive function, increased engagement and productivity, and prevention of absenteeism.

It’s often overlooked, but maintaining a nutritious, well-balanced diet holds significant sway over mental health. Such a diet provides the body with vital nutrients like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and amino acids, crucial for optimal brain function. In the absence of these nutrients, neurotransmitter function and mood regulation may suffer, potentially amplifying stress and reducing resilience to various stressors.

Addressing dietary factors can have long-term implications for employees by reducing the risk of chronic diseases associated with stress and poor nutrition.

The link between diet and mental health

This link is complex, involving various physiological, psychological, and social factors. Let us explore three examples: the gut-brain axis, inflammation and oxidative stress, and sleep.

The gut-brain axis signifies the intricate interplay between the gut and the brain. At the heart of this communication lies the gut microbiota, comprising trillions of microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract. Diet wields substantial influence over the diversity of these gut microbes, which, in a fascinating loop, can impact cognitive function, mood regulation, and behavioral patterns.

The correlation between inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain and mental health disorders like depression and anxiety is well-documented. Incorporating foods rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties into one’s diet can effectively mitigate inflammation and oxidative stress, thus fostering better mental wellbeing as a consequence.

Sleep plays a pivotal role in mental health, and the consumption of specific foods and nutrients, such as those abundant in tryptophan and magnesium, can improve relaxation and enhance sleep quality. Conversely, excessive intake of caffeine or sugar is prone to disrupt sleep patterns, underscoring the importance of mindful dietary choices for optimal rest and mental wellbeing.

Strategies to improve workplace mental health

The workplace culture presents a crucial opportunity for employers to bolster mental health through enhanced dietary practices.

By fostering a workplace environment that champions nutrition, employers can positively impact their teams’ mental wellbeing – and the good news is that there are a variety of simple yet effective strategies employers can implement today.

For instance, providing nutritional education and hosting workshops on healthy eating habits, complete with practical tips and resources like nutrition apps, can empower employees to integrate healthy eating into their daily lives.

Offering a range of nutritious snack options, such as fresh fruit, nuts, yogurt, or whole-grain crackers instead of high-sugar vending machine selections, encourages healthier choices and enhances mental wellbeing.

Advocting for regular meal breaks and establishing designated break areas where employees can enjoy meals away from their workstations fosters mindful eating practices and alleviates stress.

Furthermore, promoting hydration through convenient access to water, whether via water coolers or hydration stations, helps employees stay hydrated throughout the day. This, in turn, supports cognitive function and mood, ultimately benefiting overall mental health.

Dietary strategies to improve mental health

Additionally, there are various dietary adjustments employees can make in their everyday lives to enhance mental wellbeing.

Firstly, prioritize incorporating more prebiotics and probiotics into your diet. Vegetables like broccoli and carrots, along with whole grains such as oats and quinoa, have shown to improve mental health by mitigating inflammation in the body and enhancing the availability of neurotransmitters like serotonin, known as the “happy hormone,” which regulates mood and alleviates symptoms of stress and anxiety.

Probiotic-rich foods like sauerkraut and fermented cabbage, as well as dairy products like kefir and yogurt, are beneficial for gut health. They aid in regulating the composition and activity of the gut microbiome, which can alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety while bolstering stress resilience.

Increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids is another beneficial step. Sources like seeds, e.g., flaxseed, chia seeds, and hemp seeds, and nuts such as walnuts aid in reducing brain inflammation associated with mood disorders like depression and anxiety, thereby promoting improved mental wellbeing.

Incorporating polyphenol-rich foods like apples, grapes, kiwi, peppers, red cabbage, and spinach can also be advantageous. These foods support healthy blood flow to the brain and offer protection against oxidative stress and inflammation, which can alleviate depressive symptoms and enhance overall mental wellbeing.

Moreover, boosting your intake of complex carbohydrates, found in whole grains like oats, barley, and buckwheat, as well as root vegetables such as sweet potatoes, beetroot, carrots, and parsnips, can support gut health and digestion while providing essential nutrients. This, in turn, can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, contributing to improved mental health.

And don’t forget – fostering indulgence and celebration is not only enjoyable but also pivotal for maintaining mental wellbeing! It is important to advocate for a balanced approach to nutrition, emphasizing that while it’s crucial to promote healthy eating habits most of the time, it’s equally important to embrace moments of indulgence without guilt or shame. Incorporating occasional treats like cakes alongside nutritious options such as freshly cut fruit ensures a holistic approach to wellness, reflecting a belief that life is about balance.

Summary

In essence, the connection between stress and diet is intricate, as diet not only influences stress levels but is also impacted by stress. Recognizing the interplay between food and mental wellbeing enables both employers and employees to embrace a balanced diet that nurtures both the body and the mind.

Integrating a well-rounded diet into mental health care can serve as a cornerstone for enhancing overall wellbeing in the workplace. By guiding employees to make informed dietary choices and cultivating a workplace culture that prioritizes nutrient-rich foods, employers can actively contribute to the enhancement of their team’s mental health.

Wesleigh Roeca, Lifesum Workplace wellbeing Director

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