How mental shortcuts can become costly detours for employee health

In last week’s post, I covered how the more emotional, “fast-thinking” part of our brains governs our lifestyle choices. One reason for this is that our cognitive capacity has limits, so when we’re tired, stressed or multitasking, we tend to outsource decision-making about lifestyle choices to our more impulsive, emotional brain – often with poor results.

With an average of 200 decisions about meals per day, these choices add up over weeks and months and lead to unhealthy habits that can cause longer-term illnesses, such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Our reliance on mental outsourcing is compounded by the fact that people’s lifestyle choices, such as how much to eat, are often biased toward “anchor” values. What this means is that the amounts of food and drink consumed in the staff canteen, for example, are subconsciously tied to the sizes of plates and cups available. This subconscious anchoring of consumption is a sort of mental shortcut, which has also been referred to as “mindless eating.”

And what does this phenomenon have to do with workforce health? Let’s take the UK as an example, where stress and acute medical conditions, such as stroke and heart attack, are the top causes of long-term absence (four weeks or more) from work.

The impact of multitasking on cognitive limits leads to suboptimal lifestyle choices, and mindless eating further contributes to unhealthy behaviors. A combination of stress and poor diet causes the types of long-term illnesses – and absences – that cost UK employers an average of £522 per employee per year, according to CIPD data.

That expense is significant, particularly when considering lifestyle-related conditions are largely preventable. And yes, switching out the office’s dishes and glasses for smaller ones can reduce mindless eating. But that response is also a bit of a shortcut to addressing a larger issue. A better way to counter the ill effects of unhealthy behaviors is to elevate diet, physical activity and stress reduction to the top of mind for all employees.

Wellness initiatives are a great approach to bringing health awareness to your workforce, helping employees live healthier and enabling them to make better lifestyle choices. These programs can also make financial sense. The British Heart Foundation has put together a useful ROI calculator (https://www.bhf.org.uk/health-at-work/get-started/cost-savings-calculator) to determine the cost savings a company can achieve by deploying a clinically validated program.

Preventing the onset of chronic illness impacts not only our productivity, but our people. For the good of our employees, let’s avoid shortcuts and instead take a comprehensive approach to promoting health and well-being.