Working lunch: eating healthily in the workplace

What responsibility do employers have to ensure staff eat healthily in the workplace?

You are what you eat – or so the saying goes. But if recent research is to be believed, the UK workforce is growing increasingly porky. A study of more than 500 staff released last month by recruitment website CareerBuilder.co.uk found that half of UK workers have gained weight in their current jobs. And more than 10% of those surveyed admit to having gained more than a stone-and-a-half in their present role.

“Between hectic schedules and the temptation of office treats it’s often difficult to make good decisions about food when you’re at work,” says CareerBuilder’s director of human resources Michael Farry. But in the absence of a Jamie Oliver-type figure to trailblaze a healthy eating crusade through the UK’s staff canteens, what state are they presently in, and how far should employers go to promote healthy eating in the workplace?

Varied tastes

At health and wellbeing consultancy Vielife, commercial director Diana Nye says there are still examples of old-style, industrial canteens where chips, pie and mash and casseroles dominate the menu, but these tend to be in the manufacturing sector, where the physical nature of the job means workers burn off the extra calories. In general, however, she says: “I struggle to think of many workplace canteens where you couldn’t eat healthily if you wanted to.”

But getting employees to do so is another matter, says Robyn Jones, commercial director at Charlton House, a contract caterer that boasts Bupa and Sony as clients. She believes companies that try to impose a radical menu with only super-healthy meal options will find their staff voting with their stomachs and choosing to eat elsewhere.

She recalls one blue-chip company she worked with where chips and custard were banned from the menu in the pursuit of healthy eating, and replaced with sauté potatoes and natural yoghurt. “Within weeks they were back on the menu because of employee demand,” she explains.

Moderation

Jones says she has seen a strong trend towards companies requesting healthier menus, and that the best approach is to offer nutritious foods alongside more traditional fare. This offers employees more choice and the option of eating healthily without it being shoved down their throats. “It’s then our job to make the healthy option tempting for employees,” she adds.

Here at Personnel Today Towers, the most popular items in the canteen are reassuringly healthy, including daily low-calorie options, soups and jacket potatoes. The canteen manager says up to 50 jackets are sold each day, compared to 40 portions of chips. “People are making healthier choices,” he says.

But if companies are serious about improving workplace eating habits, the introduction of healthy foods should be accompanied by initiatives that educate staff about healthy eating and set out what the organisation hopes to achieve, says James Kendrick, a practice leader in corporate healthcare at HR consultants Hewitt Associates. “You shouldn’t just take chips off the menu without telling employees why,” he says.

A healthy food campaign can be tied into wellbeing and absence management strategies, says Kendrick. He suggests online health assessments – available from many employee assistance programme providers – which allow users to analyse their lifestyles and fitness.

To start developing a company culture where health is high on the agenda, Kendrick says employers may want to consider incentivising employees, by offering free gym membership as a perk, or rewarding staff with a ‘healthy person of the month’ award.

Bite-sized changes

But if this seems like a huge undertaking, employers may want to start with a few small initiatives. Nye says leaving bowls of free fruit at water coolers – on, say, one Friday of every month – is a good way to start. Launching a campaign to persuade employees to cut the number of sugars in their tea, or introducing a healthy bacon sandwich into the snack bar, made with grilled bacon and wholemeal bread, are other projects Vielife has overseen for employers.

Much of the food education should come from the catering company, according to Tim Cookson, chairman of the Litmus Partnership, a catering services consultancy. He says employers should ensure caterers are contracted to conduct frequent analysis of what employees are eating and to ensure nutritional information about their offerings is available at the point of sale and on posters around the workplace.

“Anyone who is successful in the food service industry needs to be talking and communicating with customers,” he said.

High-street eats

Cookson says much of the pressure for healthy food options at work has come from employees who have been influenced by the food offerings they see in the high street, which has led to the high street being replicated in the workplace. Theatre-style kitchens where food is served up in front of customers, deli bars and Costa Coffee outlets are now commonplace in many places of work. The growing tendency for people to ‘graze’ – taking small snacks several times a day – has also been instrumental in reducing the consumption of traditional meals such as roasts and casseroles.

If employees want to hone their concentration levels and reduce the risk of falling asleep at their desks after lunch, nutrionist Jonathan Denoris says a diet that is rich in fruit and vegetables, and high-fibre content such as wholemeal breads and pasta, is the way to go. Lean white meats are also recommended, but you will undo all the good work if you smother them in a creamy sauce. Denoris has developed an online health assessment programme called Myonlinetrainer.com, which has been adopted by motorcycle manufacturer Harley Davidson for its employees to use.

But whatever the choice of meal, wellbeing expert David Tinker, managing director of consultancy Feeling Alive, says it is important that employers encourage their staff to step away from their desks at lunchtime. The culture of eating snacks from the vending machine over your keyboard for lunch is an unhealthy one, says Tinker, who prefers the French model, where the ritual of sitting down to eat together in the middle of the day is encouraged.

“This allows people to step away from their work and socialise with colleagues,” he says. “As well as the food, employers should be providing nice dining areas where staff can enjoy their meals,” he says.

Case study: HSA

For Lee Nicholls, employer brand and values manager at health cash plan provider HSA, it is important that a company providing access to healthcare not only ‘talks the talk’, but also ‘walks the walk’. “Healthy eating is now part of our culture,” he says.

While the company doesn’t have a staff restaurant on site, this healthy attitude is conveyed through the breakfast bar and vending machines, which only offer healthy options, such as nuts, raisins, and low-fat cereal bars. Fresh fruit and filtered water are also available free of charge throughout the company’s main building in Andover, Hampshire.

With no chocolate bars or full-fat crisps available on-site, Nicholls believes the company isn’t dictating what staff eat, only helping them to understand what is good nutrition.

“We have taken a stance and believe we should educate people in how they can eat healthily,” he says.”But people are free to bring a Mars bar or Twix in and we won’t judge them for it.”

Education through e-mails and posters is vital, he says, as are attempts to keep the push towards healthy eating fresh and exciting.

HSA, for example, regularly invites health companies to go round the company with a trolley offering healthy items such as smoothies, juice drinks and yoghurts.

“Not only is looking after your staff the right thing to do it also helps to reduce absenteeism and boost productivity,” says Nicholls. “It’s a win-win.”

Case study: Carphone Warehouse

Encouraging staff to eat well is a central element of Carphone Warehouse’s Balance Project – an initiative the mobile phone retailer introduced two years ago to improve staff health.

HR manager Sarah Maskell says that as well as providing healthier food for the 2,000 workers at the company’s headquarters in Acton, West London, the Balance Project also aims to promote physical activity and general wellbeing, and help employees quit smoking.

Carphone Warehouse appointed contract caterers Harrison Catering to overhaul its food offering and start delivering menus that are both nutritious and tempting. Whereas chips and pizza were a common sight in the staff restaurant in 2005, today employees are more likely to find grilled fish and fresh vegetables.

“Every day we offer what we a call a ‘balance dish’ which contains the right nutritional mix,” says Maskell.

“We also have a fresh fruit market stall where we regularly promote less well-known fruits,” she adds.

Chips are now only offered on Fridays as part of a fish and chip meal option, while halal, Jamaican and Indian dishes are also available to cater for the company’s diverse workforce.

Maskell says education is vital if workers are to grasp the importance of eating well. Nutritional information is placed on each table in the staff restaurant, and posters promoting healthy eating are visible throughout the building. Employees are also e-mailed the menu each day, and encouraged to send back their thoughts.

“We have yet to measure the impact on morale and absenteeism in the workplace, but our feeling is that it is having a positive affect,” Maskell says. “Today, it is generally recognised that helping to improve employee health is part of an employer’s wider responsibilities.”

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