Whether it’s fizzy drinks or sugary treats, we increasingly need a boost to get us through the working day. Stylist investigates.
Words: Lauren Libbert
My mornings are usually a bit of a blur. I move through a fog of face scrubbing and clothes grabbing until somehow I’m dressed and walking to my first, most important, appointment of the day – with my local coffee shop. Only after my double-shot latte do my senses sharpen and a visual to-do list pops up in my head. At my desk, I’m a lean, mean, working machine: writing, emailing and interviewing for three hours straight. I’m not stupid. I know it’s the coffee. Without it, I’m slow, ineffective and grumpy. By early evening, I’ve done two more runs to the coffee shop and downed two mugs of instant.
Last week, when I counted 15 cups in the recycling bin beside my desk, I did wonder if just maybe I was a tad addicted. But it’s not just me. Every woman I know fuels up on something to get through the day, be it a morning caffeine hit or a 4pm sugar fix in order to survive the working day (or something more pharmaceutical to take the edge off a catalogue of stressful situations that a day in the office inevitably brings).
One of my Stylist colleagues cracks open at least nine cans of Diet Coke a day (“three for breakfast, three for lunch and three for dinner”), without which, she couldn’t possibly stay alert enough to manage the day. Another can’t make it through an afternoon meeting without a family sized bar of Galaxy to keep her focused. But how else can we juggle our epic to-do lists without keeling over at our keyboards come 12pm?
Our increasing dependence on energy boosters, mood lifters, nerve calmers and mind-focusers is driven by our increasingly pressured and full-on lifestyles. “When stress or anxiety levels go over the top, people will try to get rid of these bad feelings as they can’t bear to sit with them,” says psychotherapist Rachel Shattock Dawson of therapyonthames.co.uk. “Instead of letting these stresses dissipate by asking for support or taking a moment outside, they repress them by swallowing a quick fix. Substances such as sugar, caffeine or nicotine may seem to help, but actually just mask the symptoms and provide another problem to deal with in the long term.” We’re regularly selfmedicating with our work drug of choice for that female-specific condition (previously covered in Stylist) Superwoman Syndrome. In fact, a 2006 study by The Economic and Social Research Council discovered that women who worked long hours were likely to turn to smoking, drinking caffeine or snacking to get them throughout the day, but these factors had no negative impact on men’s habits.
The Office Crutch
But what is it about today’s workplace that is causing women to habitually use stimulants to get through? Long working hours play their part. Officially, full-time workers should be doing 48 hours a week but in a huge number of professions – including teaching, the media, health and finance, which rank highest on the unpaid overtime tables – the reality is much higher than that. All in all, it is estimated that British workers are now doing 2 billion hours of unpaid overtime a year, and it doesn’t ease off the higher up the ladder we climb – senior managers actually do the most overtime. Neuroscientists also believe that women are more likely to suffer from stress disorders than their male counterparts because we are more sensitive to a hormone called “corticotropin-releasing factor” produced at times of high anxiety.
The other consequence of spending more time at work is the ‘treat mentality’. Just as when we were children and we were given sweets when we were good, we treat ourselves with our crutch of choice – be that a caramel frappuccino or cupcake – to make up for long hours spent staring at a computer screen. Sarah Conway, 34, a solicitor from Hull is a prime example. “At work, it’s always something stodgy and filling for me,” she says. “I get to work at 8am to get on top of things before the day starts so by late afternoon, I’m flagging and grumpy, and desperate for a mood lift and an energy boost. For me, it’s all about getting through the day.” Stress is a big saboteur of self-control, so even if you start the day swearing off the biscuit tin, you may eventually cave in before a big meeting or as you miss a deadline. Research by Dr Roy Baumeister of Florida State University suggests that blood glucose is an important energy source for self-control, meaning you become trapped in a negative spiral: your blood sugar is too low for your willpower to kick in, so you don’t have the energy to resist the cake.
We become tolerant to caffeine and need increasing amounts for it to work
It’s all too easy to forget that sugar is addictive. Consumption has tripled worldwide in the past 50 years with links to obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes beginning to show. “The more you eat or drink, the more insensitive you become to insulin, making you produce even more of this fat-storing hormone,” says nutritional therapist Patrick Holford, author of How To Quit Without Feeling S**t (£12.99, Piatkus). “The body tries to get sugar out of the blood as quickly as possible, turning the excess into fat, causing a rebound low blood sugar, leaving you cranky and moody and in need of another fix.” In a recent study, researchers gave lab rats a 10% solution of sugar water every day (the amount found in most soft drinks), and the animals experienced the same reaction as drug addicts going cold turkey.
Even if you manage to stay strong and avoid the biscuit tin in the office kitchen, chances are you’re still reaching for the instant coffee in a bid to tackle increasingly stressful work situations due to a recession that’s seen many women take on heavier workloads as colleagues are laid off. A 2012 YouGov poll showed that 48% of workers are ‘more’ or ‘much more’ stressed than 12 months ago, and the quick-fix solution is to reach for something that quickly but briefly, tackles this. But we’re not doing our stress levels any favours – LaTrobe University in Australia found that there’s actually a link between high stress levels and excess caffeine consumption. In plain terms, it’s a physical catch 22: we’re stressed, so we reach for the kettle to calm our nerves, but habitual caffeine consumption itself accelerates the effects of stress, as it mimics the physiological response to it in our bodies: raised blood pressure, increased blood flow to muscles (making us jittery) and increased adrenaline. We also build up a tolerance to it so the more stressed we get, the more we need to consume, thus increasing our stress levels with chemicals.
The real problem, it seems, is that we’re so. bloody. tired. Overwork and anxiety about tomorrow’s workload inevitably equal restless nights. Women are now twice as likely to suffer insomnia as men and lack of sleep equals reduced alertness, decreased productivity, inefficiency, reduced hand-eye co-ordination (ever retyped the same sentence three times when you’re exhausted? Yes, just that). Three espressos before 11am superficially helps because caffeine mimics theeffects of adrenaline, the hormone which makes us alert and ready for whatever challenges our boss throws at us. Translation: we function – just about – on precious little sleep. The ironic thing is that in most cases, coffee doesn’t actually make you work better or more efficiently – only faster. Studies have shown caffeine only enhances output for straightforward tasks, not those needing abstract or subtle thinking. But still the vicious cycle rolls on.
But it’s not just accepted stimulants we’re using to get through our day, at the other end of the chocolate habit, at least in terms of effect, is codeine, a fast-acting opiate related to heroin and morphine that induces a temporary state of calm. To most of us it’s an innocent painkiller, but 30,000 Brits are now using it for less innocent reasons – as an anxiety-reducing sedative. Studies have shown that women are more likely to use narcotic pain relievers for non-medical purposes.
A recent survey by The Guardian discovered that 28% of respondents had taken opiate painkillers to get high rather than to tackle pain. “I use it regularly, but especially just before an important meeting,” explains Tania, 33, a solicitor from Manchester. “It calms me and I also get a tinge of euphoria that makes me feel a tad like I’m floating. It’s a bit like how relaxed you feel when you’ve drained that first glass of wine at the end of a long day.” Except, of course, popping a painkiller at work is more socially acceptable than hitting the pinot before 6pm.
But what may seem like an innocent pick-me-up is actually a drug that can form a life-altering dependency. “Women usually use these drugs for period pain, then slowly take it for the other effects,” says clinical nurse specialist Simon Greasley – founder of codeinefree.me.uk, set up in 2005 to support those with a codeine dependency. “They need increasing amounts to get the same effect which in the long-term could do irreversible damage to the kidney, liver and stomach. What’s most worrying is that it’s common for dependents to keep their addiction hidden and appear to function perfectly normally.” In fact they may appear to function better than they did before, as with Tania. “I could walk into a meeting feeling totally calm and able to able to express myself without stumbling.”
Sugar puts the body in a constant flight or fight mode, keeping you in a state of stress and anxiety
One of the problems is that office addictions can be collective – and therefore normalised. Colleagues do coffee runs for each other, or cracking open a packet of biscuits to perk up meetings, which means negative behaviour isn’t spoiled. This is accentuated by the fact that these addictions are run-of-the-mill, legal and unfrowned-upon things. But when you realise a can of Diet Coke has 42mg caffeine, Coca-Cola 32mg (about a third that of a cup of instant coffee) – what you tell yourself is merely an innocent habit could have serious implications.
“The human body is not designed to be in constant flight or fight mode, which it is if you’re pumping it full of external stimulants like caffeine or sugar,” says holistic health expert Sarah Graham. “If you stay on that constant level, you’re milking your adrenal glands, wearing yourself out and keeping yourself in a prolonged high state of anxiety and stress.”
Break the Habit
So how do you kick that habit? First, try taking breaks of one or two days and watch how you function without your office crutch. “If you’ve been drinking a huge amount of caffeine, halve your intake each week,” says Holford. “Adrenaline is made from the amino acid tyrosine and a 2,000mg supplement of tyrosine on an empty stomach can help you handle withdrawal effects.” It’s best not to go cold turkey though, advises Graham. Cognitive behavioural therapy practitioner Lee Grant suggests changing your automatic response from ‘I need a coffee, I’m going to get a coffee’ by pausing for five minutes before getting the coffee.
Everyone, to some extent, has a vice and there are certain days, deadlines and difficult meetings when even the most strong-willed couldn't possibly stick to tofu salad and hot water and lemon. But when you consider the effect your seemingly innocent office addiction can have over a long period of time, it’s surely worth looking at the environment you’re working in. Because a six-can- a-day habit is merely the symptom, the sign that you’re stressed, sleeping badly and probably exhausted. That dependency on sugar or codeine or coffee could actually be an indication that you are overloading yourself and you need to strike a better work-life balance. Isn’t it time you made that your new addiction?
Picture credits: Rex Features
From sugary treats to caffeine - what's your office addiction? Let us know @StylistMagazine or in the comments below.