This paper attempts to address a simple question – how do workers eat while at work? Relevant research for this paper has found that this question is not always given much thought; a phenomenon that seems strange given that food is the fuel that powers our production. Since employers want to maximise productivity, it would make sense for them to provide their workers with access to nourishing food, or at the very least, convenient access to healthy food.
The concept of providing employees with free meals first started on a large scale in the 1980s and 1990s. At this time, free meals started to be provided in investment banks and law firms. The concept was simple: if a worker stayed in the office beyond a certain time, say 7:00pm, they could order dinner into the office at the company’s expense. This was a (admittedly, very transparent) way of encouraging employees to stay later in the office – the idea being that they would get more work done (Gross, 2016). Whilst more recent research into the modern office has shown that longer hours don’t necessarily equate to greater productivity, the practice at least shows that people are willing to stay later at work if they’re going to have a free, full belly.
Workplace meal programmes are a largely missed opportunity. Th
is is a broad generalisation, and of course there are exceptions to this rule – companie
s such as Google, Facebook and LinkedIn have set the global standard for food in office spaces (for more detail, take a look at our blog ‘There’s no Such Thing as a Free Lunch
‘). Yet the norm is that workplace meal programmes are either an afterthought, or not
considered by employers at all. Instead of being accommodating, work is often a hindrance to poor nutrition. Canteens, if they exist, routinely offer an unhealthy and unvaried selection. Vending machines are regularly stocked with unhealthy snacks. Local restaurants can be expensive or in
short supply. Street foods can be bacteria laden. Workers sometimes have nowhere to eat other than at their desks. Night shift workers find they have few meal options after hours. The result of all of this, is a staggering blow to productivity and health – not just for individuals and companies, but for our nation.
Economic and business costs
In industrialised countries one of the highest business costs is health care. Whilst we don’t pay directly for our health care in the UK, the real cost is felt through our taxes and the ever growing stretch to sufficiently fund the NHS. Governments gain from the benefits of a well-nourished population through reductions in health costs, through increased tax revenue due to better work productivity and – through feeding children well – the security of future generations of healthy workers. Businesses also gain from the latter, but good nutrition means businesses will be affected less by sick days, long-term absences and the general drain on productivity due to illnesses related to diet such as obesity or circularity disease – to name but a few.
To put the impact that poor nutrition can have on our working population in perspective, it seems a shrewd move to consider the statistics that are out there on the subject. Obesity is one of the biggest killers in developed countries – shocking considering that in most cases, obesity is totally avoidable by eating healthily and being active. Indeed, a recent survey of global trends found that obesity was now second only to smoking as the biggest cause of premature death in Europe. The study looked at almost 4 million people from 32 countries and the results found that being overweight increases the chances of dying early, compared to people with a healthy weight. The research found that 1 in 7 premature deaths could be avoided if people were a healthy weight, rather than overweight or obese. Deaths from heart disease, stroke and respiratory disease were strongly increased for people with a BMI over 25 and death from cancer was moderately increased (NHS, 2015).
These results are terrifying, especially considering that one in four people in the UK are obese (NHS, 2015). So why are obesity levels so high? From an evolutionary point of view, a high metabolism and an inability to store fat is not beneficial. In our hunter gatherer days, not gaining weight and burning through calories quickly would mean an adult starved and wasted away, meaning they were unable to produce children and pass on their genes. This means that the humans of today have a biological predisposition to store fat very easily. Since our modern lives mean we are more sedentary than ever before, this provides the perfect conditions for us to put on weight – unless we do something about it, through a good diet and healthy attitude towards exercise. Cars, TVs, computers, high-calorie food and clever food marketing have all encouraged inactivity and over-eating. The obesity the developed world faces is a consequence of the bounty and convenience of modern life, combined with the human body’s ability to store fat. This means we have to be more vigilant than ever in our attempts to keep off the pounds – through the way we move, but more importantly, the way we eat.
It may come as a surprise to some, but what we eat has a far bigger impact on our waistlines than exercise does. Of course, exercise is important – it keeps our bodies and our minds healthy. Yet in terms of weight loss, diet has a much bigger impact on our size than
our exercise regime does. Research has shown that eating well and eating less has a much bigger impact on those aiming to lose weight, than through exercise with no change in diet. This is obvious when we think about it. For example, one popular caramel-filled chocolate bar is 260 calories. This would take you 45 minutes of aqua aerobics to burn off (John, 2010), so in terms of reducing calories left over at the end of the day, it is much more effective to cut the chocolate bar out completely and replace it with a low-calorie snack. Whilst it is obviously important for our health that we are getting enough active minutes each week, this evidence shows the huge importance diet has on our bodies and how much of an impact it has on our health and wellbeing.
This research and evidence shows us that being obese has dire implications for our health and wellbeing on a personal level. The negative effects of being over weight also impacts the bottom line of those who chose to employ us. Indeed, studies have shown that obese workers are twice as likely to miss work as fit ones (Wolf and Colditz, 1998). Obesity also results in loss of dexterity and compromises job safety. So it truly is in our employers’ best interests to keep us fit and healthy. When we consider the fact that this is more easily attainable through diet than exercise, it seems shocking that businesses aren’t investing in their employees through proper schemes to provide them with nourishing food that powers their bodies and minds to make them healthier and more productive. The investment in nutrition is repaid in a reduction in sick days and accidents and through an increase in productivity and morale. Indeed, adequate nourishment can raise national productivity levels by 20 percent (Wanjek, 2005) – but why is this figure so high?
Tangible and intangible benefits
Providing employees with food at work is a two-pronged approach. Like most benefits/bonuses, it makes workers feel appreciated, but also boosts productivity by increasing energy levels and decreasing time spent outside the office fetching food.
Another, sometimes overlooked benefit, of providing staff with food in the office is the culture that it creates. Taking breaks at work is vital to keep employees from going stir crazy; a lunch culture in an office can foster collaboration and creativity. Indeed, employers will go to great lengths to encourage employee bonding, from expensive company retreats to pool tables at work, but lunch is one of the easiest ways to build company culture and stronger teams. It is estimated that more than fifty percent of workers eat lunch ‘al desko’ every day.(Ramdev, 2017) This practice can result in countless missed interactions that promote collaboration, brainstorming and employee bonding throughout the company. If employee’s desks are in a clinical office space, then the vibrant sights, noise and smells of a canteen can be incredibly stimulating. In fact, the importance of this practice is beginning to be realised, with some companies using a great lunch program as their key differential in attracting and retaining staff.
Case Study – Deelishus Catering Ltd.
Deelishus Catering Ltd
is a London based catering company, which has a unique and insightful approach to food. Quality is at the forefront of everything that Deelishus do. As the old adage says: ‘you are what you eat’, and Deelishus take this quite literally. They believe that what you put into your body has a profound effect on your physical and mental health, which is why they never cut any corners on quality or freshness.
Deelishus have a special business relationship with one London based capital management company. For the past 6 years they have provided high quality, nutritious, restaurant-quality food in the company café at lunchtime and, more recently, at breakfast too. The food is freshly made, on site, every day by a team of 3 chefs who care passionately about the food they create and serve. Deelishus realises the absolute importance of premium ingredients, with freshness being key and have worked hard at fostering their relationships with suppliers.
One example of how Deelishus has worked with their client to try to raise awareness of healthy eating – and, in particular the importance of consuming a lot of vegetables & fruit in our diet – is the introduction of a daily juice bar. Before it opened in July 2015, each of the client’s employees was given a free sample of a fresh juice, together with a fact sheet of what was in the juice and information on why juicing can help optimize health.
Through their work together, Deelishus and their client have noticed the positive impact the café has on the workforce. From the employer’s point of view, their employees are both happier and healthier, which means they are better equipped to work hard and handle stress.
Deelishus and their client have found that the café plays a large role in engaging staff. Upon Where We Work’s visit to the site, we found that the sights and smells of the café offered a refreshing juxtaposition to the clinical space of the traditional modern office. It’s a place for staff to take a mental and physical break from their desk and their work, and to interact with their colleagues in a more colloquial and friendly way.
In order to engage the staff even further, the menus are constantly rotated and changed. Unless staff express a desire to have a certain dish repeated, it is unusual for the menu to repeat itself at all. There is a definite hum of excitement in the office around lunch times and staff are quoted as saying:
"Total bragging rights to friends who have sandwiches for their lunches!"
"For me, it’s an incredible luxury to never have to think about what I’m going to have for lunch – every day there is a quality offering that I know I’ll love."
"At 12.01 there is a line out of the door. Enough said."
Applying the Theory
The research referenced in this paper, combined with Where We Work’s own insight into real life practice at Deelishus, has made clear the enormous impact that food in the workplace can have. This impact is so great, it can affect mental and physical health of workers, their productivity and their desire to stay in or accept a job. Yet what is the theory behind this: why does providing food to workers have such a positive impact? One explanation, lies in the ‘hierarchy of needs’ theory, first penned by psychologist, Maslow, in 1943 (McLeod, 2017).
Maslow’s theory suggests that we, as humans, are motivated to satisfy five basic needs. These needs are arranged in a hierarchy. Maslow suggests that we seek first to satisfy the lowest level of needs. Once this is done, we seek to satisfy each higher level of need until we have satisfied all five needs. When a person fulfils their basic needs, they then seek to fulfil the next one in the hierarchy – and so on. This five stage model can be divided into basic needs (e.g. physiological and safety), psychological (e.g. social, and esteem) and self-fulfilment needs (self-actualisation). This model can be seen demonstrated and applied to the workplace below.
Thus, a deficiency in our basic needs are said motivate people; we yearn to satisfy our unmet needs. Our drive to meet these needs becomes ever more intense the longer we exist without meeting them; for example, the longer a person goes without food the hungrier they become. By the same token, a person who is on the brink of starvation is going to be so overcome with a desire for food, that they will have no desire or ability to meet needs further up the hierarchy.
When one takes the time to consider this phenomenon applied to the world of work, it seems obvious that by providing staff with the necessary means to meet their basic needs at work, that employees will be able to move further up the hierarchal ladder. If a person is free from ordinary human concerns, such as food and being socially accepted – which as we have seen, are both needs that can be met in a canteen – they can progress to “self-actualisation”. Reaching this final stage of the hierarchy provides employees with the means to embrace a full commitment to their work, which translates to them feeling fulfilled and working at their maximum potential. Giving employees space in the office to take a break, enjoy a free meal and burn off some steam is a vehicle for them satisfying their desires that fall lower down their hierarchal ladder, so that they may reach self-actualisation in the workplace.
From our own observation’s at Where We Work, we have seen many innovative techniques surrounding food at work – and not all of them have to been as grand a gesture as we have seen through Deelishus’ work. Smaller companies often provide staff with free fruit, or snacks in meetings. Others have been more ‘out there’, with free beer being provided on a Friday afternoon after work has finished. In many cases, it is the little changes such as free tea and coffee, or cake on a staff member’s birthday, that have a large impact on staff morale and which give employees a leg up into their personal hierarchical ladder.
In conclusion, how we eat has a profound effect on our mental and physical wellbeing. This in turn can have a massive effect on our working lives. Yet in the workplace, the primary concerns of many employers seem to be safety, wages and job security; nutrition programmes to combat chronic diseases, obesity or malnutrition around the world are largely aimed at schools and the community at large, yet not the workplace.
Businesses in both the private and public sectors need to realise that good nutrition for staff makes good business sense and is a sound investment. The financial costs of providing staff with nutritious food at work can be recuperated by both: tangible costs of fewer sick days and reduced attrition; intangible costs such as increased productivity due to better health and happiness.
Proper nutrition leads to gains in productivity and worker morale, prevention of accidents and premature deaths and reductions in health care costs. With all this in mind, it seems time that organisations from all sectors should consider how they are looking after their staff.
In short: worker’s meal programmes are good for workers, good for business and good for nations.
Wolf, A. and Colditz, G. 1998 Current Estimates of the Economic Costs of Obesity in the United States. DOI: 10.1002/j.1550-8528.1998.tb00322.x