There’s a close correlation between health and productivity. In this post, we’ll look at what research says about the impact that mental, physical, job and tech health have on productivity and what you can do to improve all of it.
When we’re less than productive, it’s easy to turn to an app promising better time management, easier client management or automated business management. But that’s no different than a doctor telling you to take more ibuprofen when you’ve had a migraine that hasn’t gone away for days. It’s merely symptom management.
Don’t get me wrong, we need tools like those to make us more productive—but only when we’re at the top of our game.
When you’re constantly having a hard time being productive, there’s likely something more going on, and “treating” issues within your workflow or business won’t make much of a difference. According to research, significant productivity problems usually have to do with poor health.
Today, I want to dig a bit deeper into what the research says about different areas of health and how they impact our productivity. I’ll also provide some tips along the way that may help you feel better and, in turn, improve your productivity, focus, as well as job satisfaction.
So many of the articles and papers I read on this subject are targeted at employers. Whether you’re employed by someone or you work for yourself, you shouldn’t have to depend on anyone else to give you the tools or create the right environment in order for you to be healthy and, in turn, more productive.
So, let’s take a look at some things you can do to improve your health and, consequently, find more success and fulfillment in your work as a creative.
Studies show that mental health plays one of the biggest roles in how productive you are.
A report from 2010, “Mental well-being at the workplace,” found that:
“Data from different countries around the world indicate that mental health problems are a cause of a number of employees dropping out of work. In the Netherlands, around 58% of the work-related disabilities are related to mental health. In the UK, it is estimated that around 30–40% of the sickness absence is attributable to some form of mental illness.”
Data provided by the American Psychiatric Association to McLean Hospital revealed that:
“[E]mployees with unresolved depression experience a 35% reduction in productivity, contributing to a loss to the U.S. economy of $210.5 billion a year in absenteeism, reduced productivity, and medical costs.”
While these reports focus on the impact that poor mental health has on companies, this argument can easily be reframed for the employee or someone who’s self-employed.
What You Can Do About It
Mental health troubles, in particular, can lead to all kinds of issues—many of which have a trickle-down effect.
Take stress, for instance. Let’s say you’re working on a particularly stressful project. The client doesn’t seem to know what they want and, when they do finally have an opinion, it’s the exact opposite of whatever you’ve done for them. The project is dragging on and on because they seem to enjoy talking down to you more than anything else.
This kind of job will definitely lead to stress. And that stress may turn into:
These kinds of issues are going to impact more than just your performance on or satisfaction with this particular project. It’s going to affect your other jobs and even your relationships with those clients. Your personal life will definitely feel the effects of it, too.
In order to safeguard against mental health struggles, the best thing to do is avoid activities that trigger the issues in the first place. And, yes, that includes clients. Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself, your other clients and your business is to fire a bad client and take a monetary loss on the gig.
Here are some other things you can do:
Spend time in nature. In fact, according to this roundup of resources from the American Psychological Association, nature can be mentally nourishing even if you just sit by a greenscape or listen to nature sounds while you’re indoors.
Practice mindfulness. Harvard Health Publishing recently published some interesting facts on the mental health benefits of doing yoga. In addition to improving attention, memory and decision-making, among other things:
“All exercise can boost your mood by lowering levels of stress hormones, increasing the production of feel-good chemicals known as endorphins, and bringing more oxygenated blood to your brain. But yoga may have additional benefits. It can affect mood by elevating levels of a brain chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is associated with better mood and decreased anxiety. Meditation also reduces activity in the limbic system—the part of the brain dedicated to emotions. As your emotional reactivity diminishes, you have a more tempered response when faced with stressful situations.”
Socialize with people who get what you’re going through. This is one I’m going to throw in from my own experience. While there are certainly health benefits associated with having a social life outside of work, I think it’s important for creatives—especially those who are self-employed—to find a community of people who do similar work and experience similar troubles.
A Johns Hopkins “Physical Activity in the Workplace” report makes a clear argument for why physical health needs to be managed and maintained just as much as mental health:
“Increasing employees’ physical activity can create a healthier workforce, increase employees’ productivity, and decrease employees’ risk of developing costly and debilitating chronic diseases. Employees who are physically active have lower healthcare costs, require less sick leave, and are more productive at work.”
The data is a little bit old, but it should be just as relevant today:
“Specifically, research has shown that employees who get at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity per week miss an average of 4.1 fewer days of work per year. Furthermore, physically inactive employees are more likely to require sick leave—costing an average of 26 cents per hour worked in 2014—which increases healthcare expenditures for businesses. In total, physical inactivity was responsible for 11.1% of healthcare expenditures between 2006-2011, representing a significant cost for businesses and health alike.”
Again, let’s take the employer out of the equation. If you’re going to get healthy for anyone, you’re going to get healthy for yourself and your own professional success.
That said, the point still stands. When you’re physically unwell, it can seriously debilitate you and your ability to work. Don’t just focus on the short term either. Sure, injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome or sciatica will make sitting at a desk and in front of a computer very painful. But consider the long-term costs of poor physical health—not just on your productivity, but on your personal healthcare costs, too.
For those of you who are self-employed, think about what kind of impact this might have on your ability to run a business. Let’s say that you do have to miss an extra four days of work every year. What kind of time and money will that cost you? What will you have to do to make it up? And what will that extra make-up work mean for what little time off you give yourself in the first place?
What You Can Do About It
The most obvious thing to do is develop a regular exercise routine and commit to it.
The American Council on Exercise published a great resource on the correlation between physical fitness and mental health:
“If you participate in any endurance activity, from a vigorous sprint triathlon or a trot on the treadmill to a long walk with your dog, your brain releases endorphins, the neurotransmitters responsible for what some call the ‘runner’s high.’ It’s that feel-good sensation you get after a bout of aerobic exercise. But why do endorphins leave us bathed in an afterglow of calm when we get our heart pumping? Endorphins are the body’s internal painkiller. So instead of feeling pain, endorphins leave you feeling pleasure.”
It goes on:
“Serotonin is a mood-boosting neurotransmitter and is known as the ‘happy chemical’ because it too makes us feel good. But unlike endorphins, which initially block pain to produce pleasure, serotonin promotes pleasure itself. In fact, research has shown that a lack of brain serotonin in some individuals has been associated with depressive illness. This is also why the most commonly prescribed anti-depressant medications today work by pumping more serotonin into the brain.”
In addition to keeping your body healthy, it’ll improve your mental state as well. But exercise isn’t the only key to managing your physical health. Here are some other things to think about:
Get better quality sleep. According to the Sleep Foundation, insomnia and other sleep disorders can cause:
So, getting a full night’s sleep is really important. That might mean changing up what your current routine is if it’s not working for you—like keeping the TV off or the smartphone out of the room right before bed.
Eat healthy. It’s no surprise that when you eat healthier and drink more water, you feel more alert and are more productive during the day. I’d also argue that finding joy in preparing your meals can help you do this.
When you’re busy working all day, the last thing you may want to do is cook up a meal for yourself and/or your family. So, it’s not a bad idea to invest in a food prep service or a mealkit to make it simpler. That way, you won’t be as eager to reach for DoorDash or UberEats when you get hungry.
Listen to your body. I’ve gone through various bouts of prolonged stress in my life. And when they arose, I did what a lot of people do and just tried to ignore the bad feelings. The only thing is that my body wouldn’t let me. The first time it happened, my hands and feet would go numb for hours every day. The second time it happened, I caught the flu and strep throat for three weeks. And the third time, my left eye went blind on me for an hour every day.
As a number of doctors told me at the time: “Your body will find a way to tell you when something is wrong even if you won’t listen.” So, take the time to listen to your body and give it and your brain whatever it needs so it doesn’t quit on you.
When I talk about job “health,” what I’m really talking about is job satisfaction. It’s like being in a relationship. If you’re not feeling it and just going through the motions, then you’re most certainly in the wrong relationship and should get out. Otherwise, you end up trading your own happiness and freedom for it.
Let’s see what the research says about how job health and productivity are connected:
From “The Value of Worker Well-Being”:
“Work-related factors that affect worker well-being include job demands and pressures, degree of autonomy and flexibility, quality of interactions with supervisors and coworkers, frequency of shift work, and length of the workday.”
And from “Mental well-being at the workplace”:
“Other job stressors include uncomfortable working conditions, job overload, lack of control over the work process and sheer monotony.”
These aren’t unique to employees. Self-employed designers and creatives experience similar stressors, even if they don’t have a boss or company to impose them on them.
What You Can Do About It
This one ultimately boils down to creating a job that makes you happy and that fulfills you. There are lots of things you can do to make this happen, though they’re not all that easy to do. For example:
Another thing you can do is to improve your work environment. Even if you work alone, this is just as important. For example:
Bottom line: Your job should make you happy. At the very least, it shouldn’t cause you stress. If it does, then it’s time to make some big changes.
I’m going to focus this section on two types of tech that impact our health: Social media and smartphones. Let’s look at the data.
The first study, “The relationship between social media usage in the workplace and employee productivity in the public sector,” took a look at how the usage of social media in a government department affected worker productivity:
“The study revealed that social media usage in the workplace resulted in a significant drop in employees’ productivity because of time spent online keeping in touch with friends, sharing pictures and communicating with colleagues. ”
Social media usage doesn’t just lead to lost time. It can actually make it harder for us to focus, according to “Cognitive control in media multitaskers”:
“Results showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set. These results demonstrate that media multitasking, a rapidly growing societal trend, is associated with a distinct approach to fundamental information processing.”
If you’re accustomed to switching between apps throughout the workday, then that’s likely what’s happening to you—a reduced ability to block out distractions and poor performance when switching tasks.
Multi-device usage is also responsible for causing issues with productivity, according to the study “Smartphone addiction, daily interruptions and self-reported productivity”:
“Our results indicate a moderate relationship between smartphone addiction and a self-reported decrease in productivity due to spending time on the smartphone during work, as well as with the number of work hours lost to smartphone use. Smartphone addiction was also related to a greater amount of leisure time spent on the smartphone and was strongly related to a negative impact of smartphone use on daily non-work related activities. These data support the idea that tendencies towards smartphone addiction and overt checking of the smartphone could result in less productivity both in the workplace and at home.”
Just like the other kinds of health issues we’ve looked at, tech health can feed into other problem areas, creating a never-ending cycle of bad health and further drops in productivity.
What You Can Do About It
This is always a tough one considering the field we work in. Technology is what we do.
However, I think the important thing to remember here is that there’s good tech and there’s bad tech. Good tech enables you to work and live effectively and efficiently. Bad tech distracts you from getting your work done and/or from living your life.
So, the first thing to do is categorize all the technologies in your life.
For example, do you really need a Facebook account? For years, I made the excuse that I needed Facebook in order to stay in touch with my long-distance friends and family. However, when I looked closely at what I was spending my time on on the platform, I realized I wasn’t even using it for that purpose. While I might have convinced myself that it was good tech, it really wasn’t for me.
I’d say that anything you can’t help but open up or log into in the middle of the work day is probably a bad form of tech. If you’re using it to escape stress, reality or your responsibilities, then it’s no good for you.
Something else you can do is set aside a time and place for social media or your smartphone.
For instance, do you really need your smartphone to be by your bedside? If your excuse is that it serves as your alarm clock, then go out and buy a regular alarm clock. That way, your phone won’t be the first and last thing you check every day, adding to your levels of stress, FOMO or insomnia.
Forcing yourself to get away from screens is also helpful.
If you can create a healthy balance between screen time and non-screen time, then perhaps that bad tech won’t be so bad anymore. Instead it’ll become a little treat you indulge in on the rare occasion rather than continually throughout the workday.
The last thing you want to do is go overboard when trying to get healthy. It’ll most likely backfire on you the way it does most people who make New Year’s resolutions. It can take some time to adjust to new routines and approaches to life and work, so you want to work on getting healthy bit by bit instead of all at once.
Take a look at where you’re at right now and where you’re the least healthy and where it’s impacting your work the most. Start there. Once you get good at changing your habits and start seeing some real change in your productivity, go ahead and chip away at the rest of it!
A former project manager and web design agency manager, Suzanne Scacca now writes about the changing landscape of design, development and software.
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