Is your midday spud sending you to sleep?

New research shows that 12 million UK workers (more than 40% of the total UK workforce) are suffering from a form of workplace...

New research shows that 12 million UK workers (more than 40% of the total UK workforce) are suffering from a form of workplace lethargy that has been dubbed "afternoon apathy syndrome" by nutritionists, writes Nathalie Towner.

The report, commissioned by snackbread company Ryvita with the aim of promoting healthy eating, highlights a phenomenon that will be all too familiar to IT professionals. It reveals that workers who regularly lunch on heavy, high-carbohydrate meals are most likely to suffer from afternoon apathy syndrome.

Plenty of ITers fall into this category with nearly 50% of us choosing to eat a starchy baked potato for lunch at least once a week and more 33% of us opting for a weekly burger or other form of fast food. Pasta is also a popular choice, with 18% eating it for lunch at least three times a week.

Nutritionist Fiona Hunter, one of the team behind the research, says, "Rather than using their lunch hours to recharge and re-energise, most Brits are eating stodgy meals that leave them lethargic in the afternoon.

"Many people think they are boosting their energy levels by eating high-carbohydrate lunches when in fact they are creating the opposite effect. Heavy, high-carb meals increase levels of the chemical serotonin in the brain that in turn leads to drowsiness. What's more, large meals tie up our energy in the digestion process as blood supply is directed to the stomach rather than the brain."

The study found that most people's productivity dips to its lowest level between 3pm and 4pm, so this is probably the worst time to reveal your stunning new ideas at the team meeting.

Surprisingly, afternoon apathy syndrome is significantly more prevalent among women than men. Contrary to social expectations that women are more nutritionally savvy, 35% of men report suffering from the syndrome, compared to 52% of women. Many women skip the midday meal altogether, with nearly 20% missing lunch at least three times a week.

In addition, it is not just what you eat that can affect your afternoon performance; where you take your lunch break is also a factor. Almost 50% of the women surveyed choose to eat lunch at their desks, while men are more likely to dine out at a cafe, pub or restaurant.

"The fact that men are leaving their desks at lunchtime is helping them fight the effects of afternoon apathy syndrome. Fresh air and exercise, even if it is only a 10-minute walk to the pub, can increase your heart and metabolic rate, causing you to feel more alert," says Hunter.

But before you try telling your boss that your work rate will benefit from more frequent trips down the pub, bear in mind that alcohol is one of the worst substances for impairing performance.

Not all solutions to post-lunch lethargy involve leaving the office. Workers can also help themselves to feel less drowsy by snacking regularly throughout the day on foods that provide a healthy balance of carbohydrate and protein.

Some employers in the US are so concerned by the side-effects of heavy lunches that they have started policing what their employees eat. Fortunately, this trend has not caught on yet in the UK, but maybe one day your workplace could be a potato-free zone.

How to avoid energy dips
  • Avoid heavy, carbohydrate-rich lunches - they increase the level of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. Serotonin acts as a natural sedative, making you feel sleepy

  • Drink a large glass of water before you start eating. It will help fill your stomach and reduce the risk of dehydrating. It will also prevent you from becoming dehydrated in the afternoon. Even mild dehydration is enough to make you feel tired and lethargic

  • Avoid alcohol, it can lead to dehydration

  • Make time to get up from your desk and, if possible, get a breath of fresh air. This will help to speed up your metabolic rate, making you feel more awake

  • A cup of coffee after lunch can help keep you alert, particularly after a heavy lunch, but remember that you should not be drinking more than six cups of coffee a day.
This was last published in October 2002

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