How can employers help staff build and maintain healthy nutritional habits?

healthy nutritional habits

Need to know:

  • For an effective employee nutrition programme, employers need to provide both educational interventions and environmental changes.
  • A needs assessment will help employers target their approach to the specific nutritional needs of their staff.
  • Creating a supportive organisational culture can encourage employees to maintain nutritional changes and build a workplace community around food.

Exercise is already a cornerstone of many workplace health and wellbeing strategies, but forward-thinking employers, such as banking organisation ING and software business CA Technologies, are ensuring they incorporate nutrition-based interventions within their approaches too.

Angela Steel, director at wellbeing programme provider SuperWellness, says: “We often talk about what we call the nutrition gap. Nutrition can have a massive impact on productivity, as much as 66%, but actually three-quarters of adults are not even having their five-a-day. There’s this massive opportunity gap if people improve their nutrition, then that could really improve performance in [organisations].”

As well as productivity, a focus on nutrition could help employees’ mental wellbeing, reduce ill health, boost staff morale and improve the diet of employees’ friends and families. Jo Lewis, project lead of the British Dietetic Association’s Work Ready programme, says: “There’s a really big piece there about being valued as an employee. [An organisation] investing in [employee] health via looking at food and nutrition is quite nurturing.”

Structuring nutrition within a health and wellbeing approach

A two-pronged approach within an organisation’s overall health and wellbeing strategy  is the most effective method of encouraging long-term behavioural change in employees, says Lewis. This combines educational interventions, such as workshops or cookery demonstrations, with environmental changes. Steel agrees: “Effectively, [employers are] empowering people to make choices rather than preaching or giving people just the guidelines.”

Face-to-face education, via individual or group workshops with demonstrations and tastings, are a strong starting point, particularly when followed up and supported by electronic communications, such as recipes and tips on the staff intranet.

Workshops can cover topics such as nutrition to support stress management, foods to boost energy, how to eat well during shift work and how to pack a healthy lunchbox. Education needs to be eye-catching and tailored to suit a variety of learning styles, and employers should consider delivery methods such as nutrition consultations, screenings and apps.

This type of education, which can be included within an organisation’s wellbeing week activities, can then form the basis of an ongoing health and wellbeing strategy. “[Nutrition] is often an afterthought in wellbeing programmes, but actually it can be really effective and a practical way to make a difference,” explains Steel.

Nutrition education that explains the benefits of a healthy diet can help employees better understand their relationship with food. This, in turn, can help motivate employees to maintain healthy nutritional habits, and to implement them at home.

However, a one-off intervention alone will not prove effective, says Jane McClenaghan, a British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) registered nutritional therapist at Vital Nutrition. “If it’s just one workshop, that’s not enough. It has to be a whole approach.”

Dealing with different demographics

To ensure a nutritional programme is tailored for an employer’s workforce demographic, it is important to survey staff and complete a needs assessment to find out what their specific food-related challenges are, says McClenaghan. “Getting the ideas from staff is so, so important. It’s their questions that are always being answered,” she adds.

For example, employees who work shifts have different nutritional needs to those working typical office hours; often, healthy nutritional habits can be difficult to maintain if the on-site canteen is closed overnight and employees’ only food options are in the vending machine. Equally, organisations with differing demographics, such as head office staff and on-site engineers, will also have to tailor interventions to be relevant to groups that might vary based on their work environment and schedule.

Age can also dictate how employers personalise their nutrition interventions. For example, younger employees who regularly attend the gym may not want to learn about weight loss, but this might be very important for older staff who may be struggling with health concerns.

Cultural considerations

Many employees may have fallen foul to ‘cake culture’, and making changes to this type of workplace norm is key in developing and maintaining healthy nutritional habits, says Jo Travers, registered dietitian at The London Nutritionist. “Unless there’s concrete changes to make those decisions really easy for people, then it’s a much harder struggle to change their behaviour and be healthy,” she says.

Employers can amend organisational cultures around food in a number of ways, including: ensuring employees take a lunch break away from their desks; making staff feel comfortable about leaving work on time so they have time to prepare a healthy meal at home; having food shopping delivered to the workplace and encouraging employees to eat lunch together. Groups of employees could even participate in shared lunches, where staff take it in turns to provide a healthy lunch for the group, adds McClenaghan.

Any nutrition interventions should take place during work time rather than over lunch breaks, to ensure employees still have time to eat.

Riya Grover, founder and chief executive officer at Feedr, says: “[The] provision of good food and creating community and culture around eating in [an organisation] can facilitate more employee engagement, more collaboration between [employees] and informal discussions that help build [a better] culture.”

Environmental factors

Making environmental changes to the workplace can make it easier for employees to build healthy nutritional habits. For example, employers can liaise with the contract caterers of their on-site canteen to provide a greater choice of nutritious foods or to run promotions on healthier dishes.

Employers can also work with local eateries to organise corporate discounts for healthier food choices, provide healthy food options for internal meetings and have fruit brought into the office. Vending machine choices can be altered to have more water than fizzy drinks, and to include nuts and low-sugar snacks, placed at eye-level to make them easier to spot.

Organisations should also consider providing staff with breakfast, making cereals, porridge or eggs available. Similarly, employers could subsidise or part-subsidise well-balanced meals, offered through a lunch programme or on-site restaurant.

Measuring effectiveness

Employee feedback, gathered through surveys and questionnaires, can indicate a programme’s success. Surveys done immediately after a workshop, a month after and then three months later, for example, can show if employees are maintaining new healthy nutritional habits.

Survey results can then be compared against the original needs assessment to see whether the outcomes align with the aims. Employers may also want to track sickness absence or accident and injury rates, observes Steel.

For more quantifiable data, information such as average weight, body mass index (BMI) or metabolic age can be compared before and after interventions have been implemented. Organisations might also ask employees to complete score sheets on their sleep, energy and concentration levels.

“Measurement is really important and, ultimately, any programme should aim to give measurable results,” Steel adds.

Employers are able to play a pivotal role in helping staff develop and maintain healthy nutritional habits, especially if they adopt a multi-level approach, with clear goals and systematic measurement.

McClenaghan concludes: “It’s about increased awareness about the power of nutrition and how it can help with things like energy, mood and productivity. It’s about not just delivering workshops, but also what is actually happening in the workplace that employers are offering.”