Employee Benefits Wellbeing Supplement 2005 – Feature: Healthy eating in the workplace

Bosses are learning that there are major plus points to orientating staff towards healthy eating, not least the rise in productivity, reductions in both staff absence and employee turnover, and diminished medical claims, says Alison Coleman

Case Study: Nomura

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The television series Jamie’s School Dinners has brought the link between diet and poor health sharply into focus, with celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s overhaul of sub-standard school meals shown to have a positive effect on concentration levels and performance in the classroom. Now attention is moving to the workplace, where burgers and chips remain a mainstay, and healthy eating options are typically confined to a salad bar. With growing concerns over obesity, heart disease and diabetes, health experts believe employers must take responsibility for establishing a healthier eating culture.

The question is, how do they get the message across to staff, and how much will it cost? Dr Ralph Abraham, a consultant at private clinic London Medical-London Diabetes, says: "The question that really needs to be asked is what might it cost if they don’t get the message across. People who eat unhealthily are more likely to be overweight, suffer from back problems, and be prone to diabetes and high blood pressure, all of which will impact on the sickness absence rate. Prevention is far better than cure, yet organisations are still not cottoning onto the importance of looking after the health of their staff."

One simple solution is for employers to ensure that healthy alternatives are available on the menu in staff restaurants, that snacks such as fresh fruit, nuts and pulses are offered in place of crisps and chocolate, and that people have the facilities, where possible, to prepare their own healthy lunchtime meals. "But it does depend on how committed the employer is, and how seriously they take their responsibilities," Abraham adds. A good place to start an overhaul of workplace eating habits is for employers to sign up to one of several national healthy eating initiatives such as the Weight Wise at Work 2005 campaign, run this summer by the British Dietetic Association (BDA). Its message was about setting healthy work habits: making time for regular balanced meals, including breakfast, supersizing vegetable and fruit portions, making healthier choices at break times and downsizing high calorie foods and drinks.

Campaign coordinator, Dr Frankie Phillips, believes that, in any workplace, successful attempts to change people’s eating habits depends on the employer’s approach. "They must point out that they are not talking about major lifestyle changes because that will make people feel patronised and put them off. Some of the measures that we suggested during the campaign involve minor changes that will make a big difference in the long term." The Soil Association has also been encouraging employers to provide healthier food through their staff canteens and has developed an online action guide to advise employers and employees as part of the BBC’s Big Challenge, a project to promote healthy workplaces supported by Olympic gold medallist Sally Gunnell.

However, initiatives introduced on an ad-hoc basis are unlikely to have any real effect on people’s unhealthy eating habits. Careful planning is essential if the long-term benefits are to be realised. Dr Les Smith, corporate medical adviser with First Assist, says: "The easiest way for an organisation to lay the foundations for healthier eating in the workplace is to establish a nutritional policy. This would normally involve the occupational health and HR departments working with the catering contractor, or more specifically their dietician, to develop a formal policy. "This would cover specific issues such as levels of salt, and sugar, and the provision of fresh fruit and vegetables that contain anti oxidants to combat cancer."

Employers can also be proactive when sourcing their providers. Earlier this year, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) launched a Catering Services and Food Procurement Toolkit for caterers to promote more environmentally-friendly procurement. The aim was to increase the number of small, local providers supplying the public sector, and the consumption of healthy and nutritious food. In order to trial the toolkit, the government department re-tendered its catering contract, awarding it to independent catering business BaxterStorey to supply Defra offices in London and Surrey. BaxterStorey supply and promote the use of local, organic and Fairtrade ingredients as part of a varied menu of healthy meals and are currently working with their own suppliers to increase the amount of fresh, seasonal, locally-sourced and organic produce.

Menus have improved and the number of staff eating in the canteen has increased. Other initiatives employers can introduce include workplace breakfast clubs, where employees can take advantage of eating a healthy balanced breakfast. "People have been proven to be more productive after a good breakfast, yet this is the meal that people skimp on or miss out altogether. A scheme like this need not be expensive and it [is likely to] improve productivity. I believe that employers have a real role to play in instigating a healthier eating culture," adds Phillips Increasingly, employers are recognising that health and wellbeing are intrinsically linked with corporate performance. The Vielife/Institute of Health and Productivity Management Health and performance research study, published in June, found that people with good health status are 20% more productive than those with a poor health status. It also found that 30% of a workforce could be suffering from lifestyle issues, such as being overweight and unfit, and eating a poor diet, sleep problems and stress.

Dr Robert McNeilly, a senior regional physician, occupational health at Bupa, says: "In response to growing concern over obesity and heart disease, some employers are being proactive in organising specific issue-based care days such as cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure check clinics, which they have on-site. "There are also, of course, the health assessment medical checks that are paid for by the employer. The more proactive employers use the combined anonymous data collected through health assessments to target areas in need of attention, for example, selecting specific cardiac assessment medicals if they have high levels of heart-related private medical insurance (PMI) spend in the preceding year."

This may have the effect of shocking employees into improving their eating habits, but encouraging a healthier diet is only part of the solution to tackling ill health in the workplace. If employers can encourage their employees to take more exercise as well, they are more likely to see results much faster. "Ideally, people should walk approximately 10,000 steps every day, but those in desk-bound jobs often manage only a fraction of that. Making minor changes, such as taking the stairs instead of the lift, getting out for a 15-minute walk during lunch breaks, encouraging staff to speak to colleagues in the same building face to face instead of emailing them, will make a difference. Some employers have provided their staff with pedometers to see how far off the 10,000 step mark they are," explains Phillips.

Employers clearly have a responsibility to encourage staff to eat healthily, take moderate exercise, and think about their long-term health, but do employees see this concern as genuine, and healthy eating initiatives as benefits? "It depends on the employer and how they communicate what should be a powerful message; ‘We are looking after your health, your weight, your cholesterol and your blood sugar.’ When that message registers, they will find that people will not only change their behaviour, they will also feel much more valued by their employer," concludes Abraham.

Health assessment checks

Health assessment checks can be a powerful tool in changing people’s habits, including an unhealthy diet. These type of programmes, which can be online and paper-based, deliver two benefits: a benchmark for the business on the health and wellbeing of the workforce, with recommendations on the issues that need to be addressed; and a personal report for each individual, with lifestyle advice on how to minimise their future health risks. A study carried out by Bupa last year found that among the benefits for employers is a rise in productivity of 8% and a 9% reduction in absence. Staff turnover also reduced by 15%, and medical claims costs were down 30%. For employees, their overall health status improved by 12%, nutrition improved by 29%, body mass index improved by 5%, eating five or more fruit and vegetables a day improved by 125%, stress was reduced by 14%, and smoking reduced by 9%. Excess alcohol consumption reduced by 52%, and sleep problems were down by some 72%.

Case Study: Nomura

Some of the unhealthiest workplaces can be found in the financial services sector, with its long hours and high-pressure culture. Lunch for employees is often fast food eaten at their desks, or a stodgy meal in the staff restaurant. That was certainly the case for many of the 1,500 employees at Nomura Investment Bank, until corporate health manager, Tina Bond, decided to take action. "The restaurant had a salad bar, but mainly offered things like chips and burgers. There was no healthy option, no reduced calorie dressing, and not much thought given to the concept of healthy eating. A lot of the [employees] working here are people in their thirties and forties, who don’t eat a healthy diet and are overweight." Last year, she approached senior management with the idea of introducing a healthy eating programme, with canteen additions including healthier options such as grilled chicken and fresh soup. Catering staff were also asked to display the ingredients of dishes, to help employees with allergies, on diets, or just those who want to lose some weight. Feedback from staff was positive – clearly the move towards healthier choices was long overdue. "People are aware of the health issues connected to poor diet. There is so much information and news coverage, it is difficult not to be. There is a cost element to making changes, but the changes are perceived by staff as being better for them. They do appreciate the benefit," says Bond.