Americans are working more than ever before: The average workweek is 47 hours, or 9.4 hours a day. Studies also show we’re more overweight and less happy than we’ve ever been. Coincidence? Probably not. Jam-packed workdays make it easy for unhealthy choices to slip in and become habits. But recognizing them can lead to easy changes for the better: Here’s what experts say you’re probably doing in the office that’s ruining your physical and mental health.
“I’m a firm believer that if everyone took their full lunch break, we’d have a healthier, happier workforce,” says Katie Lear, LPC, RPT, RDT, a licensed therapist in North Carolina. “Eating a sad desk lunch in front of the computer often tempts people to continue working as they eat. This gets in the way of eating mindfully, and means our brains don’t get a chance to turn off and take a break.”
The Remedy Rx: Give yourself your full lunch break. Step out of the office if you can, if just to take a quick walk around the block. “You can boost your energy levels and mood, and be more mindful as you eat,” says Lear.
“The first thing I ask my weight loss clients is if there’s a candy drawer at their office,” says Mikka Knapp, RDN, CLT, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Sarasota, Florida. “Often, it’s at their very own desk. They justify it by saying it’s to share with their coworkers, but more often than not they’re the ones going in for a piece, sometimes multiple times a day.”
The Remedy Rx: “I advise my clients to swap out the candy for mixed nuts or mints,” says Knapp. “Their coworkers will still enjoy stopping by for a treat but it won’t jeopardize their own health.”
“Too many people make an afternoon run by a coffee shop when the afternoon slump hits,” says Knapp. “They’re sleepy and a little bored. A sweet drink sounds like a nice pick-me-up, but the insulin and caffeine spike will actually make them crash harder in a few hours.”
The Remedy Rx: “A better habit would be to fill up their water bottle and go for a quick walk outside,” she adds. “Staying hydrated and getting some sunlight in their eyes will give them true energy.”
“It’s normal to want to be a team player and fit in at work, which may include the occasional happy hour,” says Knapp. “However, too many people feel obligated to go out more than they want to. Many of my clients attribute their inability to stick to their health routine to after-work socializing with coworkers. The drinks and appetizers strain their waistlines and their wallets.”
The Remedy Rx: “It’s perfectly okay to decline the invitation if you don’t want to go,” says Knapp. “No explanations needed.”
“Your mental health is important, and if you’re never taking the space to give yourself some me time, you can quickly approach burnout,” says Haley Neidich, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist in South Pasadena, Florida.
The Remedy Rx: Take regular breaks throughout the day. “Even if it’s a 10-minute walk during your lunch break, or a fun podcast on your commute home, self-care is hugely important when you’re logging long hours on the clock,” says Neidich.
Mindless eating doesn’t just happen in front of the TV—many of us do it at our desks, snacking on sugar and simple carbs. That can lead to weight gain by payday.
The Remedy Rx: Instead of chocolate or cookies, reach for snacks with protein and fiber, such as carrot sticks and hummus, or nuts and fruit, says Ashley Sobel, RD, CDN, registered dietitian at Elitra Health in New York City. Keep a bottle of water at your desk to ensure you stay hydrated.
Skipping meals at work—because you feel like you have no time to eat between meetings or there are no healthy options around your office—can cause an energy crash and lead to unhealthy eating later.
The Remedy Rx: Pack and prepare healthy meals and snacks. “When you feel like you have little to no time, running out to grab food is the last thing you are going to prioritize during your work day,” says Alexander Chriest, Ed.D., a performance coach at the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute in Orlando, Florida. “Meal prepping doesn’t have to be difficult. It can be as simple as preparing a healthy protein, rice and veggies on Sunday night. If cooking isn’t your thing, there are a plethora of healthy meal service options that you can get delivered directly to your door on a weekly basis.”
When lunch is on the company dime, it can be too easy to overdo it. “Often when lunch is provided at work it’s easy to feel powerless over what you are consuming,” says Chriest. “Think proactively about how certain foods make you feel and affect your work performance.”
The Remedy Rx: Realize you have power over what you eat, and be mindful of portion control. “When lunch is catered, be mindful of your portions; focus on healthy protein, complex carbohydrates, fruits, and vegetables,” says Chriest. “While filling up your plate, making healthy food decisions that will give you energy and will help avoid the afternoon slump is key. When dining with a client at a restaurant, order healthier items and request items to be grilled or prepared without butter.”
“One of the most common things I hear from my patients is how isolated, depressed and uninspired they feel at work,” says Nicolle Osequeda, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Chicago. “One of the most common things I notice is that they also never leave the office all day!”
The Remedy Rx: “It can be so beneficial to leave, even for a short 10- to 15-minute walk,” says Osequeda. “You move, get your blood flowing, endorphins pumping, vitamin D, fresh air, exposure to things outside of work and maybe even a coffee!”
“Many jobs require repeating the same tasks and motions over and over again, in ways that your body won’t appreciate over time, and can result in a repetitive stress injury,” says Simon Shapiro, DO, a Yale Medicine physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist. “Common problems include tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.”
The Remedy Rx: “Modify your specific workstation environment to promote good posture and comfort while you’re doing your work,” says Shapiro. “Schedule regular breaks to briefly rest and stretch the affected body part. If you’re unsure of the best way to do this, let your doctor know. A few sessions with a skilled physical or occupational therapist can help.”
“One of the most damaging things that we do to our bodies when working in an office environment is not moving enough,” says Alex Tauberg of Tauberg Chiropractic & Rehabilitation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “Our bodies are not meant to hold static postures for long periods of time.”
The Remedy Rx: Follow the 20/20 rule. “After every 20 minutes of sitting, you should get up and walk around for at least 20 seconds,” says Tauberg. “Go for a walk. Stand up and do whatever you were doing. This can have major health benefits and prevent postural strain.”
“Sometimes people develop the habit of frequently clearing their throats in the office,” says Michael Lerner, MD, a Yale Medicine laryngologist and director of the Yale Voice Center.
“The urge to clear one’s throat can be related to allergies, postnasal drip, acid reflux, or even simple dehydration. The act involves the forceful slamming of our vocal cords together. Doing this repetitively or habitually can result in vocal cord trauma, inflammation, and hoarseness.”
The Remedy Rx: “Often this can be addressed by simply drinking more water and making a conscious effort to sip water instead of clearing our throats,” says Lerner.
“Dehydration can be a major issue for desk-bound workers,” says Candice Seti, Psy.D., CPT, CNC, a licensed clinical psychologist in San Diego, California. “Fatigue can be a common result. So you may have poor water intake to blame for all the yawning you’re doing at your desk.”
The Remedy Rx: “To ensure you stay hydrated throughout the day, fill up a big water bottle first thing in the morning and keep it on your desk where you can see it and reach it,” says Seti. “Make a point to sip on it throughout the day, and refill it when it empties.”
“When you sit all day, it can take a toll on your body,” says Seti. “Poor posture can cause dramatic physical stress to your body, especially on your neck and back.”
The Remedy Rx: “To ensure you have good posture at your desk, make sure your chair is at a height where your thighs are parallel to the floor,” says Seti. “You want your computer screen to be at a height that ensures your head is upright and neutral (not looking too far down or up). Sitting in this way, focus on drawing your shoulders back and sitting upright. Consider setting ‘posture reminder’ alarms on your computer to catch you when you start to slouch.”
“Constantly putting sugar into your body keeps your liver pumping out insulin and keeps your body in fat storing mode,” says Kristen Thibeault, executive chef and owner of Nybll in Oakland, California.
The Remedy Rx: “Avoid sugar and train your body and palate to crave crunchy veggies, clean protein quick bites like jerky, hard boiled eggs, kale chips, avocados,” advises Thibeault.
Does this mid-morning scenario sound familiar? “Needing a break at 10am, you head to the break room and toast a bagel with cream cheese and jelly,” says Thibeault. “That equals an extra 470 empty calories that will spike your blood sugar and then have you crashing with brain fog.”
The Remedy Rx: Plan a morning break in advance, and keep healthy snacks around. “Have an apple and handful of raw almonds ready at your desk, and take a quick five-minute walk outside in the sunshine or walk a few flights of stairs while you snack,” says Thibeault. “A burst of movement and the protein, fiber and natural sugar will give you a sustained boost in energy. You’ll go back to your desk with a clear brain, able to focus.”
“No one likes working in a toxic environment. However, some people who have been in one role for several years may be contributing to a poor work culture and not even realize it,” says Brittany Ferri, MS, OTR/L, CCTP, an occupational therapist in Rochester, New York.
The Remedy Rx: Spend time with positive coworkers and avoid gossiping about people you work with, says Ferri. When a work chat turns into complaining, steer the conversation toward positive ways to improve the office environment.
“One of the most common stressors is having too much work, with too little time to perform our tasks,” says Lynell Ross, a certified health and wellness coach and founder of Zivadream. “If you’re a person who takes on extra work, even when you don’t have time, master the art of saying no gracefully.”
The Remedy Rx: “Learning to set clear boundaries may feel uncomfortable at first, but you can tactfully stand up to your boss or co-worker who may be taking advantage of your good nature,” says Ross. “Simply tell them that you will be happy to help if they can take something else off your list, or inform them of the deadline that works for you.”
“Working overtime despite having familial obligations can cause a tear in your relationships and bring undue stress to you and your partner,” says Neidich.
The Remedy Rx: “Set boundaries on how long you’ll work each day, and make sure the rest of the team is aware of your schedule,” advises Neidich.
“Dedication to one’s work is a highly valued quality, but employers should also appreciate an employee’s commitment to taking time off,” says Ashley Hopkins, RD, LDN, director of wellness program success at Wellable. “Vacations have been shown to deliver wellness results like increased productivity, boosted creativity, and improved emotional health.”
The Remedy Rx: “To ensure available vacation time is used, preplan time off by building days off into your schedule ahead of time, or consider taking a few days at the beginning or end of a week to enjoy a rejuvenating long weekend,” says Hopkins. “Also, keep in mind that you don’t have to travel far to enjoy quality time off—a restorative staycation offers just that!” And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don’t miss these Things You Should Never Touch — According to Doctors.