Boost Your Work Performance by Prioritizing Your Mental and Physical Health

By Hannah Daigneault, MS, RDN, LDN, November 15, 2023
Boosting work performance

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted changes in the workplace that experts predict will continue for years to come. While many workers shifted to a remote setting during the lockdown phase of the pandemic, some employers have since adopted “return to work” policies requiring workers to be on-site for at least part of the work week. Nationwide, employment was also impacted; the number of people who voluntarily quit their jobs hit a 20-year high in November of 2021 in what is now known colloquially as the “Great Resignation.” [1] 

Navigating these changes can be stressful as individuals are asked to adjust to new routines and deal with the challenges of commuting, office politics, and social interactions. In addition, many people are still concerned about the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. [2]

It’s never been more important for employees and employers alike to prioritize mental and physical health to optimize performance at work.

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The impact of stress in the workplace

A primary threat to health and productivity in the post-pandemic workplace is stress. 

An appropriate stress response is designed to help identify threats to your safety and escape them—think of early humans who needed to ward off predatory animals in order to survive in the wilderness. In the modern era, however, your stress response can be triggered by fear, pressure, or taking on more work than you can handle. Unlike lions or bears, these stressors don't go away quickly, leading to persistent, or chronic stress.

Stressors in the post COVID-19 workplace include: [3]

  • Adapting to change
  • Learning new things
  • Working long hours
  • Dealing with conflict
  • Performance anxiety
  • Lack of resources
  • Physically demanding work
  • Blurred work/life boundaries
  • Caring for children

Persistent stress can heighten symptoms of anxiety and/or depression and make it difficult for employees to focus or perform at their jobs. Anxiety and depression, in turn, make it more challenging for individuals to effectively cope with stress, creating a cycle that leads to burnout. [4] 

In addition to psychological effects, workplace burnout can impact physical health, and is a significant predictor of hypercholesterolemia, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, hospitalization due to cardiovascular disorder, and more. [5]

How to cope with stress at work

While some stress may be out of your control, how you cope with it can have long-term health impacts. Here are some ideas for managing stress:

  • Breathing techniques like box breathing can help you relax by stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system (the antidote to your “fight or flight” response). To do box breathing, inhale for four counts, hold your breath for four counts, exhale for four counts, and hold your breath for four counts. Repeat this cycle three to five times.
  • Going for a 5-minute walk every hour can help you to clear your head and improve circulation. If you can't get away from your desk, try standing up and walking around for a few minutes instead.
  • Listening to music, especially music that is calming or relaxing, can help regulate your nervous system and focus on your work.
  • Avoiding screen time during lunch break can help you to relax and recharge. Instead of working through lunch, take some time to step away from your desk and step outside, chat with friends or family, or practice mindfulness.

Prioritize your health to perform at your best

Known contributors to cognitive decline and poor performance that may be heightened in the post-pandemic workplace include physical inactivity, poor diet, inadequate sleep, substance abuse, social isolation and stress.

Train your brain to boost cognitive function

Give your brain a workout by regularly playing games like Sudoku, crossword puzzles or Wordle that challenge your executive function and processing speed. [6] Listening to background music has also been shown to boost memory and prevent cognitive decline in older adults, and can help manage feelings of stress. [7]

Incorporate consistent exercise

Breaking up your work day with periodic movement can help boost energy and enhance cognitive performance. One 2016 randomized controlled trial found that those who took hourly, 5-minute walking breaks during a six hour workday reported improvements in self-perceived energy and mood, and decreased fatigue and food cravings at the end of the day. [8] 

Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise have been shown to benefit the brain in different ways, so experiment with a few different types of exercise that you enjoy. [9]

Hone in on your nutrition

While it accounts for a mere 2% of total body mass, the brain uses 20% of the total calories you consume every day, so it needs adequate food to function. [10] This means that attempting to boost productivity by working through meal or snack breaks is likely to backfire when you inevitably find yourself exhausted and mentally drained. 

Make fueling easy by keeping snacks and a water bottle for hydration at your desk. Pair carbohydrates—the brain’s primary fuel source—with a source of protein, fiber, and/or fat for sustainable energy. Protein, fat, and fiber all help slow the rise in your blood sugar, lengthening the amount of time your brain feels energized after eating.

Foods that have been shown to slow cognitive decline include fatty fish, olive oil, avocados, dark chocolate, richly colored produce (like berries and leafy greens), whole grains, and legumes. [11] 

Tune into sleep hygiene

Sleep is also an important part of energy restoration and cognitive performance. [12] Sleep deprivation makes it challenging to maintain focus and concentration, and greatly increases the risk of errors while at work. [13] As best you can, try to get 7-8 hours of restful sleep every night to preserve your health and boost your energy.

Try turning off any device with a screen for at least an hour before bedtime to reduce blue light exposure and support melatonin production. [14] This means no answering emails at 10pm, which also helps to support healthy boundaries between work and life.


Optimizing your performance at work

Performing well and feeling satisfied by your work is likely to keep you committed to your employer and at your job for longer. [15] Employers should aim to prioritize the health and wellness of their staff in order to boost productivity and sustain employee retention. 

What individuals can do to boost work performance

As an employee, your primary responsibility is how you choose to manage your time, energy, and relationships. Here are a few things you can try:

  • Prioritize behaviors that promote long-term health such as getting adequate sleep, moving your body, eating plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables, and abstaining from substance use. 
  • Find ways to manage stress that help you temper your “fight or flight” reflex. This could include breathing exercises, spending time in nature, reaching out to a therapist, and establishing healthy boundaries between work and life. 
  • Nourish your brain with food and hydration that provide sustained energy, rather than skipping meals or snacks, or going straight for caffeine and sugar.

What organizations can do to boost work performance

Employers can also work to create work environments that prioritize employee wellness. Employees may not perform well if they are stressed, sick, or burned out. And burned out employees are likely to quit their jobs. 

Here are a few things that organizations can do to help nurture employee performance: 

  • Provide access to mental and physical health resources such as counseling, exercise rooms, quiet meditation rooms, natural spaces, and social areas where employees can connect.
  • Encourage breaks throughout the work day and support employees in taking time to attend to their needs. Stock break rooms and kitchenettes with healthy snacks and offer more than just coffee for hydration.
  • Honor employee boundaries between work and life, which will help prevent burnout and keep employees committed to their work while in the office.
  • Tailor strategies to each individual employee by harnessing technology that provides personalized guidance about health-promoting behaviors.

Personalizing your approach to performance

There are many ways to improve your health so you can perform your best, both at work and in your personal life. But it can be confusing knowing where to start or understanding which habits actually make an impact for you. InsideTracker can help. 

InsideTracker uses biological data including blood work, DNA, and physiological data from wearable fitness trackers to identify where your current health stands, then presents trends over time so you can understand which lifestyle, exercise, supplement, and nutrition recommendations work for you. And with scores for healthspan categories like heart health, sleep, cognition, and inflammation, you’ll know where to focus and how to optimize your health.




More on this topic

5 Science-Backed Ways to Relax and Cope with Stress
By Molly Knudsen, MS, RDN, August 15, 2022
The Health Benefits of Sleeping Well
By Michelle Darian, MS, MPH, RD & Molly Knudsen, MS, RDN, October 28, 2022
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