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Doughnuts in the conference room. Soda and chips from the vending machine. Cookies in the office kitchen. A recent CDC study of employees across the U.S. found that the foods people get at work tend to contain high amounts of salt, sugar and empty calories.

When people are busy and on-the-go — a common reality for full-time employees who spend more than a third of their day at work — it’s all too easy to fall into poor eating habits. And poor eating habits contribute to poor health. According to a RAND Corporation Study, 60% of American adults suffer from at least one chronic condition (like diabetes or high blood pressure) and 42% have more than one. These conditions are costly, and not just for individuals themselves. The CDC estimates that productivity losses related to health issues costs U.S. employers $1,685 per employee per year, or $225.8 billion annually.

For employers that care about wellness, improving food and beverage offerings represents an untapped opportunity: Better nutrition at work can not only have a powerful impact on employee health, but also contribute to a happier, more focused and productive workforce. Making large-scale changes across an organization is not always easy, however, especially when it comes to ingrained habits and preferences. What can today’s employers do to incentivize their employees to make healthier choices?
1. Make healthy food and beverages a benefit.
According to Deloitte’s 2018 survey on Global Human Capital Trends, 63% of employees surveyed cited healthy snacks as something they value highly when it comes to wellness. People want to eat healthier, which is great, but when they are busy, they’ll pick up what’s easy and available. And in too many of today’s offices, that means vending machines and office kitchens stocked with ultra-processed foods high in sugar and salt. Not only are these items unhealthy, they can also lead to sluggishness and lethargy as blood sugar levels spike and then crash.

It’s pretty simple: When more nutritious offerings are readily available — and especially if they are free or subsidized — people are more likely to try them. Companies that offer high-quality food and beverages as a benefit will reap rewards not just in terms of a healthier and more productive workforce, but also in attracting and retaining people, like millennials, who value wellness and appreciate the fact that their employer is investing in their health and happiness.
2. Get personal.
Different people have different drivers and different needs. This is why a one-size-fits-all approach to changing habits rarely works. Before making big decisions about your company’s food and beverage services, ask questions: Are some people on special diets or do they keep unusual schedules? What do people like and dislike about current available options? What kinds of foods and drinks do they wish were offered, but aren’t?

With a better understanding of habits, preferences and what drives people to the kitchen or break room in the first place (boredom? low energy? social time?), employers can begin to build a food and beverage profile that’s tailored to their workforce’s individual needs and thus more likely to be embraced.
3. Consider the “psychology” of snacking.
People don’t always make rational decisions — even more so when they are tired, stressed or “hangry.” But when corporations make the healthy choice the easy (and delicious!) choice, it helps. Everything from where snacks and drinks are positioned — are the more nutritious options at eye level? — to the design of kitchen and break room spaces can make a difference in promoting better eating habits.

For example, kitchen spaces that are attractive, comfortable and inviting encourage people to take a little more time and put more thought into selecting their snacks, and can also serve as a welcome place for people to connect with each other and de-stress. Taste is another important consideration. People sometimes assume that healthy food won’t taste as good as the bad stuff, but this is often just a misconception. Special tastings or fun office activities like offering a “snack of the week” can get people to try more nutritious options and see for themselves that they can be just as — if not more — delicious than what they were eating before.
4. Nudge, don’t push.
Don’t expect people to move from potato chips to veggie and quinoa salad overnight. Organizations that start with a few key changes — replacing sugary sodas with flavored water, for example, or swapping out highly-processed snacks and foods with similar, but more nutritious options — will face less initial resistance, and can then build up their healthy offerings over time. Every workplace has their guilty pleasures, whether it’s a specific brand of soda or a favorite candy. Rather than turning people off by taking their “comfort snacks” away, sometimes the best approach is to simply add healthier alternatives and then wait for people discover on their own that these can be equally fulfilling and delicious, and most importantly, make them feel better too.

Workplace wellness initiatives continue to grow in popularity, but there are still questions about whether these programs are as effective as they could be. While health screenings, smoking cessation programs and gym memberships are a good start, corporations shouldn’t overlook a key driver of good health — what their people eat and drink. Providing easy access to a great diet at work is a smart strategy for improving wellness, and one that employees will come to appreciate as a valuable benefit. Plus, healthy, enthusiastic and energized people makes for a much happier and more productive workplace — a win-win for employees and employers alike.