By: Colin Bullen

How has COVID-19 reshaped your workplace productivity and well-being? Have things changed for the better, or for worse?

Almost every working environment has been forced to change to adapt in some way to cater to the new conditions created by this extraordinary illness, with varying degrees of success and learning. Also, COVID has brought home in the most extreme and unpleasant way just how important healthy behavior is to your prospective health. According to the CDC, you are at increased risk of severe COVID infection and death if you are obese or overweight, a smoker, have diabetes or cancer, or have heart conditions – all of these conditions are strongly linked to your health behaviors.

Preventing COVID spreading is all about behavior, too – keeping your distance, wearing a mask, and washing your hands. Companies are realizing that to survive and thrive in these changing times, knowing that COVID is not the end of it, they need to become adaptable, flexible, and cohesive in a way that many have never been before.  They are waking up to this and seeking help from wellbeing professionals to shape the future contexts of work to make them safer, healthier, and happier.

At Change Craft, we are anticipating a boom as companies realize the importance of change resilience in their workforces. The question is how companies can design the context for changing behaviors while remaining ultimately productive and healthy.

The Perils of Productivity

Productivity is one of the least understood and overhyped subjects in the world of wellbeing – everyone rightly latches on to the impact that health has on performance, but the numbers that get quoted can be disturbingly large. As businesses and the people within them struggle to stay productive under the pace of change, it is worth reflecting on the role that healthy behavior has on productivity.

We consider improved productivity to be indicated by research in the following outcome areas:

  • Error rates: A reduction in the number of errors made by an individual on the job
  • Cognitive Function: The quality and speed of decision making and general levels of executive function
  • Stamina: The ability to keep going effectively, particularly towards the end of a working day
  • Engagement: An employee’s emotional connection to the workplace
  • Units per man hour: A traditional measure of productivity.

The fact is that healthy behavior will beneficially impact performance in the workplace, in isolation of all other extraneous factors. There are a variety of reasons for this, but we know that individuals will take fewer sick days and will be more focused at work (reducing ‘presenteeism’ – being at work but not performing well). We can also demonstrate that individuals will make better decisions, fewer errors and have greater stamina as the day wears on – all of which are beneficial for productivity.

However, in the world of wellbeing, you cannot ignore the extraneous factors – context is everything. Nothing is more counterproductive and disengaging than a campaign that requires or rewards healthy activities in a stated effort to drive performance. In this respect, it’s not what you do, but how you do it.

But let’s first decide whether it’s worth making any effort to change employees’ health behaviors when it comes to performance and productivity.

Healthy Habits that Help Reduce Absence and Presenteeism

As a regular reader of this series, you’ll know that at Change Craft we like to be sure whether any particular behavior benefits the outcomes we’re looking to achieve. It’s so easy to see one quoted beneficial outcome for a specific behavior, and you immediately assume that there is a beneficial outcome across many areas. Exercise reduces mortality? Well, it must be good for heart disease! Healthy sleep reduces stress? Well, it must be good for productivity! Great care should be taken when interpreting research – the research explains only what it explains and nothing more should be assumed.

Let’s consider the two ‘negatives’ first and the potential reduction of the productivity problems that are absenteeism and presenteeism.

The BRATLAB Dose Value research reveals that significant reductions in absence and presenteeism are possible by transitioning from certain poor behaviors to good behaviors:

  • A 70% reduction in absenteeism and a 40% reduction in presenteeism is likely for those engaging in healthy sleep (>= 7 hours per night) relative to those who have poor or disturbed sleep (<5.5 hours per night)
  • People who engage in optimal levels of exercise (150 minutes of moderate to intense strength or cardio workouts per week) should expect to enjoy a 35% reduction in absenteeism, with a much more moderate 10% reduction in presenteeism
  • People who are sufferers of chronic disease who take their drugs as prescribed – the correct quantities at the correct time – will enjoy 50% less presenteeism than those who fail to take their drugs as prescribed. This can be effective, therefore, depending on the number of employees with chronic disease and if you suspect that they might be failing to take their drugs as prescribed.
Change Craft Absence and Presenteeism

Credit: BRATLAB, 2020

So, the habits prescription for absence and presenteeism would be strongly focused on sleep, with support from exercise (exercise can help sleep) and potentially some investment into chronic disease drug management.

While reducing absence and presenteeism improve productivity by helping cut of out the costs of illness, there are opportunities to enhance performance even for those that are not ill. This is obviously not the same thing, but it is interesting that similar behaviors dominate the potential outcomes.

Perchance to Dream and Improve Productivity

Optimizing sleep shows up strongly in the two areas of productivity: error rates and cognitive function. Sleep is one of those subjects that’s often taboo and if it’s going to be mentioned, it’s normally in the context of a macho boast about ‘pulling an all-nighter’ to get that report out, a sleepless night with the baby, or partying hard but dragging yourself into the office. There are not many people who come into the office openly celebrating the fact that they managed a seventh straight night of 7 or more hours of good quality sleep.

Although we have not yet found any research into sleep and stamina, a 40% improvement in cognitive function and a 45% reduction in error rates are possible for people who move from poor sleep (<5.5 hours) to optimal sleep (>=7 hours). This time, however, support for sleep comes from smoking cessation. A 60% reduction in error rates is possible after an extended break from smoking (the short-term impact is the reverse), and a 30% improvement in cognitive function might also be expected once the withdrawal symptoms have abated.

Change Craft Productivity Graph

Credit: BRATLAB, 2020

In a Nutshell

If you’d like to help your colleagues perform better at work, it’s time to turn your attention to their sleep habits.

Want to know how to go about improving your colleagues sleep behaviors? Why not try our courses on behavior change? These courses qualify for NWI CPE credits.

On this or any related subject, email me at colin@changecraft.consulting, and we’ll be pleased to assist.


Colin Bullen

Colin Bullen is the founder and director of Change Craft, a global business established to help organisations execute effective and successful well-being change. In business, he’s the technician, evaluator, and strategist. A true road-less-traveled devotee, he qualified as an actuary in 1992 in the UK before spending 13 years in South Africa where he met Chicago-based business partner Hanlie van Wyk. During this time, he has steadily broadened his métier into health, well-being, leadership, strategy, assessment, and data.

Colin has a deep passion for helping companies find their human touch, whilst accelerating their performance and focusing their vision. Colin is also one of the creators of the behavioral research database that is BRATLAB and has been a driving force behind early successes in Change Craft.