The workplace can be very stressful at times and, while some stress can be avoided with proper task delegation, communication and resource allocation, another less obvious factor is negatively impacting many workers’ mental wellbeing – gut health.
With corporate wellness high on the agenda for many organisations, now is the time for employers to prioritise their teams’ gut health as part of their overall approach to employee mental wellbeing.
However, with limited understanding amongst employers on the intrinsic connection between the gut, the brain and workplace wellness and performance, it is no surprise that so few are taking their employees’ digestive health into account.
The link between the gut and the brain
Whilst people may not immediately make the connection between the gut and the brain, according to science, there is a very real link between the two, and an increasing amount of evidence that they can significantly influence each other.
Research on the gut-brain axis [the link between the gut microbiota and the brain]suggests the microbes in our digestive system have a measurable role in our brain function and structure, influencing mood, emotion, and behaviour along with other important aspects of our personalities and our mental and physical health. This explains why stomach problems are one of the most common symptoms of stress and anxiety.
In addition, studies on humans and animals, some using neuroimaging, have recently discovered further evidence for links between the composition of gut microbiomes and brain processes. For example, a lack of certain gut bacteria has been associated with psychiatric disorders ranging from anxiety and depression to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder [ADHD] and autism spectrum disorders [ASD].
How gut health can affect business
Gut health has long been an issue that has affected people at work, with around 10-20% of the UK population living with IBS. In fact, the IBS Network estimates Britain’s businesses lose almost £3 billion every year through sick days related to gut health, and up to three quarters of sufferers have reported taking up to five days off work each year.
Gut problems such as bloating, indigestion, constipation and diarrhoea are naturally likely to make it harder to focus at work. Employees may be worried about how to manage their symptoms, and this could affect their interactions with colleagues, as well as how willing they are to participate in certain activities. Employees with poor gut health may avoid travelling to meetings, too, if they are worried about suddenly needing the toilet on the way.
Inflammation of the gut could also increase anxiety and depression in employees’ and, in turn, negatively impact their ability to do their job well.
Helping employees manage and improve their gut health
There are many steps employers and managers can take to help employees manage and improve their gut health issues and reduce the impact on their workplace satisfaction and performance, starting by focusing on the largest contributing factor – diet.
While of course businesses cannot enforce rules to ensure employees follow specific diets, they can make eating healthier easy for any employees who want to improve their gut health.
Examples of workplace initiatives that could help aid employee gut health include offering gut friendly drinks like Kombucha and making healthy foods available as an alternative to the typical sugar and fat laden options often found in the office canteen or vending machine.
Businesses should also encourage employees to take their full break, so they have time to eat a nutritious meal away from their desks and go for a walk to help their food digest. It is important to be mindful that some people may need to avoid certain foods, which could mean leaving the office to find something they can eat, and employers could help them by providing a fridge so they can bring food from home.
Offering plenty of access to water is vital for food to move through the digestive system. While tea and coffee do hydrate to a certain extent, businesses should try to encourage employees to consume some non-caffeinated drinks too.
Finally, developing programmes that incentivise employees to exercise can play a significant role in how well their digestive systems function.
Exercising increases blood flow towards the muscles and digestive tract, which can help move food through it, and may also enhance the microbiota found in the gut. Conversely, as we become less active, our intestinal flow tends to slow down.
Regular low-impact physical activity throughout the working day, such as walking, can also help alleviate heartburn, gas, stomach cramps and constipation.
Clearly there is a powerful connection between the brain and gut, and a healthy gut equals a healthier and happier employee.
By helping staff prevent and treat digestive issues with healthy food and drink choices, sufficient breaks and exercise, businesses can revolutionise their quality of life and their productivity, whilst potentially decreasing absences and creating an overall stronger workforce.
Emma Thackray is co-founder of Hip Pop
 Psychological Science, 2021
 BDA, 2021