Eating the profits

The chips are down for junk food. TV chef Jamie Oliver has persuaded the government to ban Turkey Twizzlers from school canteens, and sales of olive oil and organic vegetables are on the up. So perhaps it is about time that UK workers followed suit and ditched the pizzas in favour of healthy salads.

Research from Vielife, which advises companies about healthy living, shows that healthy eating does relate directly to business performance. Using a sample of 15,000 people in the UK and US, they found that employees with “poor nutritional balance” report 21% more sickness absence and 11% lower productivity than their healthier colleagues. And those who are clinically obese are 13% more likely to be off sick than those who are not.

There is no quantitative evidence as to what UK employees actually consume during the nine-to-five, but it is safe to assume that spinach and natural tofu are fairly low on the menu. Research carried out in Scotland by the Food Standards Agency found that people think healthy diets are boring, regimented and tasteless. Those who took part in focus groups said that counting calories and eating fruit and vegetables made them miserable.

Make it easy

So what should employers be doing? Azmina Govindji, dietician and nutritionist with the British Dietetic Association, says that healthy eating should be part of a comprehensive workplace health package. Think of common sense changes such as making it as easy to munch an apple as it is to grab a chocolate bar.

“More and more larger companies are providing healthy choices in their canteens, and promoting healthy eating to staff,” she says. “Employers do understand that if they improve health and diet, employees are likely to have better performance, better health, improved alertness, and take fewer sick days. Large organisations are putting time, effort and resources into promoting the health of their employees.”

But employers cannot force staff to change their habits. Clive Pinder, managing director of Vielife, says that the only way to tackle this is to change the culture of the organisation. Measure the health of employees, he advises, and look at how this relates to performance.

“Nutrition is a critical pillar of good health – as is sleep, emotional resilience and physical activity,” says Pinder. “By investing in integrated health programmes, companies can improve health and related issues such as absence and productivity.

“Employers differentiate and select people based on intelligence (IQ) and emotional intelligence (EQ), so it makes sense to begin to differentiate based on health (HQ).”

Ditch the doughnuts

However, Pinder says too many employers simply accept a culture of eating unhealthy food. “I had a meeting recently with a company that was talking about promoting a healthier diet for staff, and on the boardroom table were plates of doughnuts and pastries,” he says. “There is no need to offer staff biscuits for snacks. Offer nuts and fruit instead.”

That said, there are plenty of organisations that take the healthy eating message seriously, such as Ikea, Severn Trent Water, Bedfordshire Police and Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council.

Tameside, for example, has been working to improve health in a bid to boost attendance for the past two years. It encourages staff to drink more water – even issuing ‘pee charts’ to monitor throughput – runs healthy eating fruit days and promotes healthy eating in its staff magazine. At the launch of the initiative, every member of staff was given a free water bottle, and the council set up water stations so that they can fill them quickly and easily.

According to the council’s assistant director of people and performance, Mick Forrest, the healthy eating programme has been highly popular and attendance rates have improved since it was introduced.

“We have saved 4,000 days of work, and reduced absence rates from 10.7 days per year to 10,” he says. “That’s the equivalent of having 27 extra employees. Our target for this year is to go into single figures.”

Pushing the healthy eating message has been an effective way of moving from a negative emphasis on cutting absence to a positive one on boosting health and attendance.

The momentum has continued, with 1,200 of the 4,500 staff signing up to the programme, and even greater numbers changing their eating and exercise habits.

“If you get to the canteen late, all the bagels and all the yoghurts have gone,” says Forrest. “And there is always a long queue for the salad boxes.”

Who eats what?

A survey of 15,000 workers by health consultancy Vielife revealed significant differences in eating habits depending on age, gender and marital status. Women have a significantly better nutritional balance (51.4% compared with 45.4% of men); married employees report better nutrition than their single colleagues (50.2% compared with 45.2%), and single men have the poorest scores (41.4%). Older employees also have healthier diets than younger ones – the over-40s score 53.7%, while the under-40s score only 45.6%. Employees based in the South typically eat a more nutritionally balanced diet than those in the North.

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