Nutritionist Kate Whitelock explains how healthy eating can help prevent burnout and why organisations must care for their employees from the inside out.
“The current economic climate, combined with an ‘always on’ work culture has fuelled the issue of stress and burnout. Essentially it is close to becoming a worldwide epidemic and is one of the biggest challenges facing organisations in the 21st century,” says nutritionist Kate Whitelock.
“The financial impact of stress on businesses speaks for itself, both in the UK and across the globe. In 2014/2015, 11.3 million days were lost to stress and anxiety at an estimated cost of £3.8bn to the UK economy.”
Helping companies use nutrition to support their employees during periods of stress to drive optimum mental performance is the focus of Whitelock’s work. Healthy nutrition, she explains, is scientifically proven to help people manage adrenal fatigue – the signs and symptoms associated with chronic stress – thereby preventing them reaching burnout stage.
“We also know that the gut acts as our second ‘brain’ and there is a wealth of evidence linking dietary influences with brain health and mental wellbeing, i.e. giving people the mental and psychological resilience needed to cope with stress,” she adds.
“I therefore passionately believe that organisations need to start taking responsibility for helping their employees cope with these stresses. If not, they are going feel the direct impact on this to their bottom line due to increased sick days, reduced performance and low morale.”
First-hand experience of the corporate world taught Whitelock the value of listening to her body in order to eliminate stress and build resilience. Fifteen years spent working in senior marketing and commercial roles for media and tech companies left her energy levels severely depleted.
Deciding that something had to change, Whitelock sought the advice of nutritionists at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition (ION) and following a series of tests discovered she was suffering from adrenal fatigue due to prolonged stress.
After working with a nutritionist on a six-month diet and lifestyle plan her energy was restored and cortisol levels (the key hormone involved in the stress response) were back in the normal range.
Experiencing first-hand the power of nutrition was enough to persuade Whitelock to become a fully qualified nutritional therapist and set up her own business Nutrition Works.
This move into nutrition was not, however, meant to be an escape from the corporate world. Rather Whitelock saw her new role as inextricably linked to her belief that companies have a responsibility to “arm their employees” with the right nutritional information to support both mental and physical wellbeing.
In fact, experience of fast-paced workplaces has proved to be central to her success. “Due to my corporate background I understand first-hand the challenges that exist within the working environment and can therefore make my recommendations and content super relevant,” says Whitelock.
“My experience also means that I am able to frame the benefits of nutrition from an ROI (return on investment) perspective and help management teams understand that nutrition shouldn’t be viewed as a ‘nice to have’, but rather it reflects sound investment in human capital.”
Her approach is bespoke and holistic, as well as inherently practical. From advice for frequent flyers to highly stressed, time-poor executives, Whitelock believes it is crucial to understand the environment people work in, in order to offer tangible, easy to implement advice that will drive long-term change.
Wellbeing in the workplace is certainly rising higher up the corporate agenda. Over the past six months Whitelock has seen a “marked increase” in organisations looking for ways to support the mental wellbeing of their employees. She believes that going forward companies that can demonstrate a commitment to wellbeing and nutritional health will stand out from the crowd both in terms of attracting and retaining talent.
“We are already seeing certain industries, such as tech and brands like Google, who use nutrition as a means to drive employee engagement,” notes Whitelock.
“Furthermore, The Sunday Times ‘best 100 companies to work for’ list now features wellbeing as a category. Therefore, this is an expectation from your people that you will invest in their wellbeing.”
While there is no one-size-fits-all fix for healthy nutrition, Whitelock’s focus is on good quality, mostly plant-based and seasonal whole foods full of complex, biologically active molecules that have “an immensely positive impact” on health.
The biggest element to consider is not the calories or fat intake but blood sugar, as imbalanced blood sugar is one of the most stressful things you can put your body through.
“Over time this aggravates the ‘fight or flight’ response in our body. This leads to raised cortisol levels and too much of this has a negative effect on both of physical and mental wellbeing,” she explains.
“As such, balanced blood sugar should be seen as the foundations of your house. Get this right, and you are well on the way to creating a much calmer internal environment.”
Key pointers to consider include eating protein with every meal (even snacks), making time to eat breakfast, swapping fast energy releasing (white) carbohydrates for slow releasing (brown) carbs, avoiding sugars and being aware of hidden sugars such as in tropical fruits or shop bought cereal bars. Whitelock also advises people to reduce stimulants, especially coffee, and make sure they do not go too long between meals.
“From a dietary perspective, my biggest tip would be to eat more cruciferous vegetables [such as cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli]. Forget whole foods, these are the original superfoods and we simply don’t eat enough of them. Aim to have at least a couple of portions a day,” she explains.
The idiosyncratic nature of internal health means that ultimately the best advice is to tune into your body to “re-establish the connection” between what you eat and drink, and the effect this has on your mind and body. Whitelock suggests keeping a food diary to see which foods make you feel lighter or cleaner, improve your mood or help you shake off ailments like a persistent cold.
“Reconnecting with what we are putting in our bodies and how this makes us think and feel is a major step forward in terms of breaking bad habits and forming newer, more useful ones.”