Business of Well-being

Hacking Performance in the Workplace

Employers that improve workplace performance can have a significant impact on their bottom line. To do this, many employers are investing in wellness programs to keep their employees healthy, happy, and productive.

Work related injuries and illness, chronic disease, and absenteeism all impact employee performance and this negatively impacts business revenues to the tune of billions of dollars each year. Absenteeism alone costs American businesses nearly a quarter of a billion dollars annually. And according to the CDC:

  • 4 of the 10 most expensive health conditions for US employers are related to heart disease and stroke, which are among the most costly health problems accounting for $1 of every $6 spent on US health care
  • Inadequate sleep leads to errors, low productivity, and safety incidents
  • Medical costs for people with diabetes are twice as high as for those without
  • Overweight and obese workers miss 450M more days of work than healthy workers, costing more than $153B a year in lost productivity

The above CDC link has several tools and recommendations to help keep employees healthy and prevent chronic disease however they fail to mention the negative health effects of blue light. Blue light is ubiquitous and is a common factor among office workers that contributes to all of the health issues mentioned above.

I'll be sharing some of the published research supporting this and will share the recommendations I provide to the companies I work with to mitigate some of the harmful effects of artificial blue light. Research on the impact of blue light on office worker productivity is limited however there are a few papers that have been published.

A few years ago a study conducted by the Department of Neurology at Northwestern University and the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois looked at the Impact of Windows and Daylight Exposure on Overall Health and Sleep Quality of Office Workers.

This study found that office workers with more natural light exposure slept longer, had better sleep quality, more physical activity, and rated a better quality of life than those with lower levels of natural light exposure. This study from the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment, and Health found that Blue-enriched office light competes with natural light as a zeitgeber.

A zeitgeber is an environmental cue that synchronizes your internal clock or circadian rhythm. The study suggested that participants exposed to blue-enriched light appear to entrain to office hours. This might sound good on the surface however a disruption in circadian rhythm has been shown to lead to sleep disorders, increased risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, poor cognitive function, and neurodegeneration. None of which are good for work productivity.

Today nearly all employees that work inside are exposed to high levels of artificial blue light from their computers, smartphones, and overhead office fluorescent and LED lights. Most employees lack adequate amounts of natural light and a growing number of doctors believe poor lighting is contributing to rising health costs, which lead to decreased productivity.

In addition to negative health effects, artificial light sources cause glare or flicker which has been linked to a number of employee complaints that include eyestrain, blurred vision, dry eyes, and headaches. Screens and fluorescent and LED lighting all have high levels of blue light, also called high color temperature.

Light from overhead lighting and screens often doesn't appear blue however a majority of the wavelengths emitted are between 400 - 500 nm, which are in the blue light spectrum. Blue light is short wavelength, which makes it very high energy. This high energy light increases reactive oxygen species (ROS) production, and negatively impacts hormones, and cellular growth and metabolism.

Blue light helps wake you up so on the surface this seems like a good thing for an office environment. There's blue light in the sun however the sun is balanced with red, green, infrared, and ultraviolet light. When it comes to light, the sum is very different than the parts.

Aside from fire, life has never been exposed to limited parts of the light spectrum from the sun until the invention of electric light over the past 120 years or so. Light frequencies from the sun change throughout the day and the sun wirelessly sends signals to the body to operate different programs.

This is how life is designed to work. These programs include proper release and generation of hormones and neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, melatonin, vitamin D, and beta-endorphins. Sunlight is also used by our mitochondria to create energy. Over time, fake light destroys these programs.

This impacts hormones that regulate growth, metabolism, and regeneration of cells, sleep, mood, energy levels, and other important life functions. The difference with blue light from energy efficient lights and screens is that it has 4 times the blue and hardly any red, no infrared, and no UV light like the sun.

In the morning blue light from the sun wakes you up and stimulate the pituitary gland to release hormones. The antidote to blue light is red light. Infrared-A (IR-A) light, in particular, is regenerative and has been shown to be extremely beneficial to health.

Forty-two percent of sunlight is IR-A light and this is missing from screens and energy-efficient lights. As you can see from the picture below incandescent lights have low amounts of blue and high amounts of red and infrared.

This makes them much healthier than fluorescent and LED, which both have very low levels of red, no infrared and high amounts of blue.

Mitigating the Risks

  • Every 2 hours or so take 10-minute breaks outside and get natural light from the sun. This should be without glasses or contacts to allow the full spectrum of light into your eyes. You don't have to look directly at the sun, just look up at the sky for maximum benefits.

  • Wear blue blocking glasses, such as BluTech or the equivalent when inside. Use orange lens glasses once the sun sets to further protect your circadian rhythm.

  • Set up your office to maximize natural light exposure from windows to benefit as many employees as possible

  • Ideally, you want a window to the left or right of your computer. Never behind because this creates additional glare

  • Have your IT team install software that reduces blue light from screens. I used to recommend f.lux but now recommend Iris, which has a lot more functionality. There is a free version and Pro version if you want to really geek out with it

  • Encourage employees to use Night Shift on iPhone and Twilight on Android

  • Purchase lamps that use clear incandescent or low-voltage halogen bulbs for nights at the office and turn off fluorescent and LED lights once the sun sets or better yet, turn them off all the time

  • To reduce eye strain and headaches, look away from your computer screen (or smartphone) every 20 minutes and focus on something 20+ feet away for at least 20 seconds

  • Eat orange, yellow, and red colored vegetables and shellfish like lobster and shrimp. These are loaded with carotenoids and vitamin A to protect your eyes

Blue light affects us at different rates and some people will feel the impact sooner than others. Employers can potentially head off a number of health issues by implementing the above and educating and helping employees on minimizing blue light exposure.

About the Author

Nathan Walz, founder of Journey to Optimal Health, provides Corporate Wellness expertise. He consults companies on their wellness initiatives and presents to employees on topics that include how to have more energy, less stress, better sleep, and improved mental performance.

Learn about how you can become a Certified Corporate Wellness Specialist→