Dehydration and its effect on performance

It’s nutrition and hydration week, so I thought it timely to point out how our performance at work can be affected if we neglect these two vital aspects of our wellbeing – and what we can do to improve it.

(pauses and takes a good few gulps of water)


When we’re stressed, and particularly when we don’t get enough sleep, we tend to crave the starchy, fatty and sugary/salty foods that aren’t exactly optimal nutrition. Plus caffeine. Lots of caffeine. We can then get locked in a cycle of craving / sating / withdrawing / craving, where our bodies are subjected to a blood sugar roller coaster. The roller coaster affects our concentration levels and therefore performance at work. We can struggle to focus and get stuff done. We’re easily distracted and may seem to be busy, but what we’re not is productive and performing at our best, as reported in HBR.

Of course there are long-term effects of this unhealthy intake if we keep going. Serious health issues can follow, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and risk of type 2 diabetes. More on these from Healthy Performance.


We can become dehydrated very easily; not surprising when you stop and think that our bodies are largely made up of fluid. We use heaps of water, even if we’re not all that active, with our brains being a huge consumer of the stuff.

Our performance of everyday tasks can drop off dramatically even if we’re only slightly dehydrated, as alertness and short-term memory are affected, as reported by Water for Health. What’s more, our mood can darken and we get anxious – that’ll be the evolutionary wiring kicking in. And it’s got a very good point.

Truth is, most of us can eat and drink more wisely for a short while, but before too long we’re drifting back into bad old habits. So instead of putting ourselves through cold turkey withdrawal (and setting ourselves up for inevitable failure), it may be smarter to simply make some tiny tweaks:

  • Have a glass of water on waking. Your brain’s been busy while you were sleeping.
  • Add healthy snacks to your grocery shop and buy some small containers to take them to work in.
  • Have more snacks comprised of fruit and nuts than manufactured snacks of sugar, salt, processed fat and starch. There’s research suggesting greater curiosity and creativity at work can result from consuming more fruit and veg.
  • Plan what you’ll have for lunch just after a mid-morning snack; you’ll be better able to choose healthily then than if you leave it until later when you’re hungry.
  • Take a packed lunch a few days each week, so you don’t have to choose at the last minute (and you can save money).
  • Stop whatever else you’re doing when you eat and pay attention to the smell, taste and texture of the food – you’re more likely to feel satisfied if you do this than if you’re reading emails and social media updates as you eat (a little music or conversation won’t hurt though).
  • Keep a bottle of water on your desk and sip from it regularly (a friend has an hourly alarm on his Apple Watch, as he tends to get engrossed in work and forget otherwise).
  • Match each cup of tea or coffee, and each caffeinated fizzy drink, with a large glass of water.
  • If you must have a workplace ‘bake-off’, sell the home-made goodies to raise money for a charity of people’s choice. How about a charity that’s working to provide clean water, such as Unicef?

For other aspects of your wellbeing, you may also find this post useful: 10 ways to look after your wellbeing.

Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’, available now at bookstores and on Amazon.

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