Can a poor diet at work be fuelling our poor mental health?

The root causes of mental health problems in the workplace are many and complex. But what we eat and company attitudes to food are having a profound impact on our sleep and behaviour. Kate Cook looks at the links

It’s encouraging to note the way that mental health has risen to the top of the agenda in many workplaces worldwide.  Resources have been allocated in many companies to ‘Mental Health First Aiders’ to identify those at risk, and therefore prevent tragedy. This is certainly progress, but identifying issues is one thing – doing something to get at the root causes is quite another.

The root causes of mental health at work are various and complicated, but it never ceases to amaze me that food is hardly ever flagged as a major contributor to mental health issues in the workplace. How workers engage with food is surely their choice. It starts to really smell of nanny state if companies try and suggest that our fuel is the issue. Food is one of the last sacred cows in freedom of choice. Working hard means that workers want a treat, they don’t want to be told what to eat.

Determining health outcomes

As family and church exert less of a counter balance to individualism, workplaces have become the tribe, the community and the family. How that work culture treats our need to eat is key to instigating patterns of behaviour around how we value food. The way we fuel our people determines health outcomes on so many levels – from diabetes to heart disease – but also on the outcomes of poor mental health.

On a very basic level, the up-tick in caffeine use in society is an experiment that is putting our sleep in jeopardy according to experts in the field, and a lot of sleep issues look very like mental health problems. In fact, there are no mental health problems that don’t involve disturbed sleep. Blood sugar problems from poor diet can cause symptoms of jittery and moody behaviour, poor sleep, anxiety, anger, depression and stress.

‘The lunch break has been seriously whittled away…’

Culturally, workplaces have a duty of care to make sure that workers have an adequate amount of time to eat. The idea of a lunch break has been seriously whittled away in many organisations. Eating lunch, stuffing a sandwich, at the desk whilst multi-tasking is another cultural norm in many workplaces.

A poor food environment puts addictive food in the path of good choices for many companies – vending machines being one way that companies condone access to terrible fuelling choices. We then are left to mop up the consequences of how that food affects mental health. Why is it we get that feeding children on sugar is unlikely to get settled behaviour, but don’t think it applies to adults?

No time to eat

Another block to eating well for mental health are the long hours and extensive face time that many companies demand as part of their working ethos. Getting in early (without time to eat breakfast), then staying late at work, then being starving whilst shopping in the evening, give rise to poor food choices.

No time for shopping outside the late-night supermarket system means that workers are not excited by food, they might as well be gassing up at a petrol station. Workplace is also responsible for poor boundaries around phone use in the evening. Quite rightly, the French have legislation around phone use outside the workplace, but we in the UK are horrified. Isn’t it our choice to look at the phone or not in our own time and make those decisions ourselves? The smartphone, like processed food, is designed to be addictive and we might not have as much choice in it as we think.

Workplace attitudes around food, how much time we allow for eating, and how we engage with work boundaries are key to identifying one of the key causes of poor mental health. Of course that doesn’t exclude other factors such as stress, bullying or work pressure, but addressing poor biochemistry through an inadequate, nutrient-deficient diet will be one of the foundations for how we deal with mental health at its root.

Kate Cook is a nutritional expert, wellness specialist, international speaker and author. Her book Positive Nutrition – Strategic Eating is published by LiD, May 2018