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Achieving your caffeine balance at work

There’s no doubt that caffeine has become a big part of modern daily life. Whether you’re drinking that daily cup of coffee or tea, enjoying a performance drink or even eating a chocolate bar, you’ll be consuming caffeine. It’s thought that over 2.25bn cups of coffee are consumed in the world every day.

Achieving your caffeine balance at work

The caffeine debate

There is much conflicting medical advice about the effects of caffeine and, in particular, coffee, which is the main source of caffeine for many. How does caffeine affect our performance at work? Should we steer clear, or can it help us keep focus, work better in teams and stay sharp? And what are the alternatives?

On the one hand, research points to health risks. Unfiltered coffee consumed to a high level has been associated with mild elevations in cholesterol levels. Other studies have found people with a relatively common genetic mutation that slows the breakdown of caffeine can increase their risk of heart disease with just two or more cups of coffee a day.

On the other hand, plenty of studies point to health benefits. A study by the British Medical Journal concluded that: ‘Coffee consumption seems generally safe within usual levels of intake, with summary estimates indicating largest risk reduction for various health outcomes at three to four cups a day, and more likely to benefit health than harm’.

In another study, we are advised that the high levels of antioxidants in coffee are good for you, and have been linked to a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, liver diseases, and Alzheimer's.

General advice seems to be that up to 400 milligrams (mg) of caffeine—around four cups of brewed coffee or two energy drinks—a day is safe for most healthy adults.

It’s worth noting, however, that the level of caffeine in one cup of coffee can vary significantly—estimated to be between 30 mg and 175 mg in a cup (150 mL) of home-prepared coffee—so the ‘four cups’ notion may not always apply. Like much of what we consume, a ‘safe’ level of caffeine will vary at an individual level with some people more tolerant than others due to natural factors such as metabolic rate and genetics, and lifestyle choices.

What does caffeine do?

Caffeine acts as a central nervous system stimulant. When it reaches your brain, the most noticeable effect is alertness. You’ll feel more awake and less tired, so it’s also a common ingredient in medications to treat or manage drowsinessheadaches, and migraines. Caffeine does this by preventing the chemicals in our brain which make us feel tired, from having an effect.

Too much caffeine can give you headaches. This is primarily linked to caffeine withdrawal. The blood vessels in your brain become used to caffeine’s effects so if you suddenly stop consuming caffeine, it can cause a headache.

How should employers respond to caffeine consumption in the workplace?

Coffee is typically the main source of caffeine consumption in a working environment, and the evidence suggests that, within moderation, your average strength and size coffee does have health benefits for your average healthy adult.

But not everything is average. One coffee maker will produce coffee with more caffeine than the next and some employees will be more adversely affected than others.

Coffee is integral to many working environments across the world, but there are options for employers concerned about caffeine consumption.

Coffee machines, for example, rather than filter coffee makers, may help to reduce the levels of caffeine in a typical cup. Offering an interesting range of decaffeinated drinks or teas may encourage experimentation and a move away from too many coffees during the day, or making filtered water readily available, and even luxuries like smoothies, could also lead to a shift in behaviour for those who habitually drink too much coffee.

Employee awareness is, of course, a key place to start. Do your employees realise how much caffeine they are consuming? What ideas do they have on how to reduce this if they want to?

Evidence seems to suggest that coffee drunk in moderation should not adversely affect employee health and, in certain instances, may even lead to health benefits. However, where there are imbalance and concerns that staff are consuming too much caffeine throughout the day, employers do have the tools available to subtly shift thinking and behaviour, whilst avoiding heavy-handed interventions.