Healthy eating has never received as much attention as it has in recent times. As the population ages, and the food system becomes more complicated, people want answers on what foods they should eat and why. But lifestyle factors make it challenging to eat healthy — employees spend most of the day at the workplace where they must navigate a sea of fast food, caffeine and sugar.
The result is employers are starting to feel the true financial burden of the link between dietary habits and employee health. But forward-thinking employers are making the move to create environments that support a culture of eating healthy.
Employees want healthy food options, according to the Nutrition in the Workplace Survey, a survey of 327 employers conducted by Canadian HR Reporter and Nutrition Naturally in October/November 2010. More than one-half of respondents — 51.9 per cent — say employees have expressed a desire for healthy food options in the workplace.
Most employers agree there is a connection between food choices and work performance; in fact an overwhelming majority (85.6 per cent) acknowledge there is a relationship. That could be because diet affects energy levels, mood, behaviour and overall health. And nine out of 10 respondents say creating a culture of healthy eating is important.
But the survey also indicates great variance in how organizations respond to this issue. Many have not even brought this issue to the table, so it has not been addressed. Some organizations have run programs or had benefits in place but are unsure of their effectiveness. Other respondents have well-developed nutrition education programs that have yielded amazing results in their organizations.
So why is there such a huge disconnect between the clear need for these programs and effective solutions?
Part of the issue is the response from employers is extremely polar. Responses in the survey coalesced into two distinct camps: Those pessimistic about past programs or hesitant to tread on employees’ choices versus those that have embraced healthy living as part of organizational culture.
In fact, almost one-third of employers (30.7 per cent) feel healthy eating is not even a legitimate issue for them, that it is an issue of personal choice. These respondents tend to put the onus on the employee, citing employee attitudes, unwillingness to change or enforcement as the barriers to change. Some employers have faced challenges of low participation and even negative employee feedback — both suggesting employee involvement was not adequate and programs were rolled out in a top-down, one-way, “tell them what they should eat” approach.
Nowhere was the lack of employee input clearer than in the cafeteria data. Although 80 per cent of employer-provided cafeterias have healthy options, only 39.1 per cent ask for employee input. It also begs the question as to who determined the options are healthy, as only 27 per cent have consulted with a nutritionist. Some companies say they removed unhealthy options such as french fries from the cafeteria, only to be met with staff revolt.
In contrast, an effective cafeteria “makeover” would use the expertise of a nutritional expert to analyze the food options and survey staff to design a menu of healthy foods employees will enjoy and purchase. A successful program must have support from all levels.
Listen to employees
The survey shows many organizations have got it right, with successful healthy eating projects ranging from simple to elaborate. The key to success with all of these initiatives is a willingness to hear what employees are interested in and creativity to meet the constraints of budget, organization size or logistics.
Effective, low-cost ideas
The low-cost ideas debunk the myth small organizations or budget constraints can preclude companies from taking action. Simple options include nutritional lunch and learns, 100-kilometre potluck dinners and educational newsletters or bulletin boards.
More extensive projects range from farmers’ markets, weight-loss competitions, providing healthy breakfasts and cooking classes. Successful programs have support from employees, executives and unions, and are focused on the specific challenges of eating healthy in that organization.
For example, employers may be surprised it is not the choices in the cafeteria that are on the minds of employees but sourcing local food for their household is of interest. This type of feedback has led to the trend of many employers facilitating access to farmers’ markets and local food for employees. All great programs and ideas start with creating a dialogue with employees, which leads to buy-in and good participation.
Once designed effectively around employee needs, participation should not be an issue. Some survey respondents indicate they have had strong success with their programs, spurring even further initiatives. The ultimate measure of success is when healthy eating naturally evolves into a part of workplace culture.
There is an untapped wealth of innovation within the very organizations that are looking for answers. Almost one-half of employers feel they are not doing enough to help employees eat healthy. But the good news is the respondents have an abundance of good ideas, with almost one-third giving suggestions of how their organizations could support employees’ healthy eating.
But have these invaluable ideas been considered or even brought to the table? The answers are within the organization, just waiting for the opportunity to be brought to the surface in the right forum.
Gaining senior management’s approval
Respondents indicate the biggest obstacle to providing programs, besides budget, is a lack of senior management leadership as it has not been made a priority. There is clearly a demand and a willingness for these initiatives, but how can healthy eating be brought to the table and have executive buy-in? The value of these programs must be made by demonstrating the return on investment through clear metrics.
If the value of wellness programs is made clear, senior management will make them a priority, even in economically tough times. The success of any program relies on clear goals and determining how its effectiveness will be measured. There is a huge opportunity in this area, as only 10 per cent of respondents are confident their nutrition programs have been effective and only 1.8 per cent have attempted to measure their effectiveness.
Leaders in healthy organizations understand a healthy workplace culture is key to their success. But programs must also reflect the individual needs of the organization and engage employees. A program’s success is almost guaranteed by emphasizing employee input and involvement, good program design and metrics that demonstrate ROI. Innovative companies understand that creating a culture of healthy eating improves workplace performance, helps attract and keep good talent, and contributes to a healthy bottom line.
Stephanie Grylls is a nutrition educator and consultant and founder of Nutrition Naturally in Newmarket, Ont. She can be reached at (905) 252-0674, Stephanie@nutritionnaturally.ca or visit www.nutritionnaturally.ca for more information.