Last reviewed 17 July 2018

Most of us eat at work every day, whether it’s packed lunches, canteen food or snacks provided to see us through long meetings. Perhaps, urges Vicky Powell, employers should be giving more thought to exactly what staff are eating during the working day, in the interests of boosting physical wellbeing, mental health and productivity.

Food culture in the workplace

British workers spend more hours at work each week than anyone else in Europe according to recent European figures. The average working week is 42.3 hours in Britain, compared with just 37.8 in Denmark and 39 hours in France. During this time, it is estimated that workers will consume a significant proportion of their overall daily calorie intake — around a third — while at work.

This figure isn’t really surprising given that food is an integral part of the day in most workplaces. For some staff, eating at work will mean grabbing a bite to eat in the form of a packed lunch or a quick trip around the corner to the nearest sandwich outlet. Other workers will rely on the staff canteen, vending machines or snacks supplied by the employer during long meetings, with the food on offer varying greatly between organisations, and ranging from sugary pastries, cakes and treats, to more balanced meals and snacks.

Likewise, in many organisations, a food culture of celebrating staff birthdays with cake and rewarding successes with sweet treats may mean food simply appears in the office on a regular basis, with all sorts of impacts in terms of productivity, health and wellbeing.

One recent study published in the journal Food, Culture & Society highlighted the office “food altar” as the central spot where birthday cakes, leftovers from meetings and other food is placed at work.

Workers may plan to eat healthily during the day by bringing in a nutritious packed lunch and one worker, Kevin, who brings a packed lunch to work, told the researchers, "You control yourself much better when you dictate what you put in your lunch."

However, encountering unplanned foods in common areas of workplaces can break down the best of intentions. Another worker said that although she avoided buying treats at home, she wasn’t able to control the food types that were regularly presented in the workplace, such as birthday cakes or scones served during meetings. Indeed, workers described having to navigate a daily gauntlet of cakes, biscuits, sugary treats and other unexpected food offerings during the average working day, with common zones accounting for the majority of unconscious, unplanned and unhealthy eating decisions in the working day.

Yet the authors of the study warn that “the wrong kind of fuel can derail the whole day”. For example, one worker told the researchers that her morning muffin tended to leave her feeling “sleepy” with sapped energy levels.

Obesity: small changes, big impacts

In the face of a workforce consuming a significant, but perhaps nutritionally meagre amount of calories at work, it is interesting to note that obesity in the UK has increased by a staggering 92% since the 1990s.

Recently, the Royal College of Surgeons pointed out that around 63% of adults in England are classified as either obese or overweight and raised concerns about the “cake culture” in many British workplaces.

Professor Nigel Hunt, Dean of the Faculty of Dental Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons, said, “Managers want to reward staff for their efforts, colleagues want to celebrate special occasions and workers want to bring back a gift from their holidays. While these sweet treats might be well meaning, they are also contributing to the current obesity epidemic and poor oral health.

“We need a culture change in offices and other workplaces that encourages healthy eating and helps workers avoid caving in to sweet temptations such as cakes, sweets and biscuits.”

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) has joined in on the debate around healthy eating at work and says that by making small changes to the workplace environment, employers can make a big difference to peoples' eating habits. The BHF’s top tips for managers include the following.

  • Keeping vending machines stocked with healthier choices or supplying a subsidised communal fruit bowl.

  • Providing clean and well-maintained areas for employees to prepare and store their own meals.

  • Providing fruit instead of biscuits at meetings.

  • Encouraging caterers to develop a healthy workplace catering policy or guidelines.

  • Setting up a simple breakfast bar to encourage staff to start the day healthily.

  • Ensuring easy access to fresh drinking water.

  • Displaying and promoting healthy choices in the staff restaurant, and providing nutritional information, to help people make better, informed choices at lunchtime.

These small changes can help employees make far better choices. A refuse collector at Bath and North East Somerset Council told the BHF, “I was never a fruit eater until work introduced it to us. I’ve now got a taste for it and I’m beginning to buy fruit every day and I feel a lot healthier on it.”

Food and mood at work

It’s not only physical wellbeing which is at stake when workers make their food choices. The well-known occupational health expert Professor Cary Cooper recently warned that stress is now the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK, accounting for a massive 12.5 million working days lost each year.

However, according to the mental health charity Mind, evidence suggests that as well as affecting physical health, food also affects the way people feel. The charity has shared eight key ways to help manage mood using food choices, as follows.

  1. Regular eating and choosing foods that release energy slowly to help keep sugar levels steady is important. When blood sugar levels drops, workers might find themselves feeling more tired, irritable and low. Slow-release energy foods include pasta, rice, oats, wholegrain bread and cereals, nuts and seeds.

  2. Eat the right fats: the brain needs fatty oils such as omega 3 and 6 found in foods such as oily fish, chicken, nuts, avocados, eggs, milk, yoghurt and cheese.

  3. Increase proteins such as lean meats, fish, eggs, cheese, peas, nuts, seeds, beans and lentils. Proteins contain amino acids which make up the chemicals the brain needs to regulate thoughts and feelings. It also helps to control blood sugar levels.

  4. Drink more water, diluted fruit juices or herbal teas. Being dehydrated can make it hard to concentrate and think clearly.

  5. Eat a wide range of fruit and vegetables: these contain the vitamins, minerals and fibre needed for good physical and mental health.

  6. Cut down on caffeine in the form of coffee, tea, energy drinks, chocolate and fizzy drinks: Too much caffeine can increase anxiety and depression as well as disturb sleep.

  7. Fibre rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and live yoghurt which contain probiotics can all promote gut health.

  8. Some people are intolerant to certain food and this can affect their sense of wellbeing and mood.

Managers might wish to make staff aware of these points, and also consider them when providing food for staff, as part of the wider company approach to the management of stress at work outlined by the Health and Safety Executive in its ongoing Go Home Healthy campaign, which identifies work-related stress as a key current focus for employers.

Coping with the pressures of a demanding working week — or even just the all too familiar mid-afternoon slump, when the clock seems to be dragging and cravings for sugary treats set in — can be a challenge for many workers. However, by supporting better dietary choices, employers can help ensure their staff have the fuel they need to approach their jobs with focus and energy, enhancing both wellbeing and performance in the workplace.

Action points for employers

  • Stock any vending machines with healthier choices.

  • Offer free/subsidised fruit to employees.

  • Provide clean fridges and cupboards for employees’ food.

  • Provide fruit instead of biscuits at meetings.

  • Ensure easy access to fresh drinking water.

  • Promote healthy choices in the staff restaurant.

  • Consider whether a healthy eating information campaign might help employees.

  • Discourage people from eating at their desks — a stroll and some fresh air might stave off the mid-afternoon slump that often leads to sugar cravings.