Eating at this time of day is hurting your work productivity

Those late-night snacks or munchies might feel like a lifesaver in the moment, but eating poorly the night before could hurt your performance at work, researchers warn.

A new study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, found that unhealthy eating behaviors at night had an impact on workers’ performance the next day, with respondents being less helpful and more withdrawn that before.

Researchers at North Carolina State University were interested in seeing whether our food choices — specifically unhealthy eating — could affect workers the following work day, which revealed that what you eat can impact you physically and emotionally.

Seonghee “Sophia” Cho, an author of the study and assistant professor at NC State, said that it’s the first time a study has shown how eating affects workplace behaviors and performance. She said it’s been established that sleep and exercise can impact our work, but the short-term effects of unhealthy eating hasn’t been explored before.

“The big takeaway here is that we now know unhealthy eating can have almost immediate effects on workplace performance,” Cho said. “However, we can also say that there is no single ‘healthy’ diet, and healthy eating isn’t just about nutritional content. It may be influenced by an individual’s dietary needs, or even by when and how they’re eating, instead of what they’re eating.

Ninety-seven full-time employees participated in the study which asked a series of questions three times a day over a 10-workday period. The questions gauged physical and emotional well-being, and participants were asked about what they did at work for each day, followed by their eating and drinking behaviors after work.

Unhealthy eating was considered as consuming too much junk food; eating or drinking too much; or having too many snacks late at night, according to researchers.

The study found that when people reported unhealthy eating patterns, they were more likely to have physical problems the next morning like headaches, stomaches, and diarrhea. Additionally, poor eating decisions resulted in emotions strains as well; respondents reported feeling guilt or shame about what they ate.

Those decisions posed a problem the next morning at work since workers were bringing those ailments into the office, and that changed the way people behaved through the workday. Participants reported declines in “helping behavior” and increases in “withdrawal behavior,” two behavioral patterns that can deeply change the way one works. (Helping behavior is going the extra mile with colleagues; withdrawal behavior is avoiding work-related situations at work.)

Researchers also found that people who were emotionally stable suffered fewer adverse effects from unhealthy eating, meaning their workplace behaviors were less likely to change even when they reported strains.

Cho said companies can provide assistance in helping employees address their diet.

“Companies can help to address healthy eating by paying more attention to the dietary needs and preferences of their employees and helping to address those needs, such as through on-site dining options. This can affect both the physical and mental health of their employees — and, by extension, their on-the-job performance,” Cho said.

Late-night snacking has been a problem through the pandemic with many seeking comfort foods as a way to combat anxiety and stress. One study found that snacking was up 27% during the coronavirus pandemic, likely due to people being around food all day at home combined with stress from the pandemic.