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Diana Spellman

Partners in Purchasing

Managing Director

Read more about Diana Spellman

Talking Point: If we are what we eat, what kind of workforce have you got?


What we eat has a big impact on our performance at work in relation to everything from mental clarity and energy to stamina and productivity.

This is because food governs how well both our bodies and our brains function. Food makes our mood.
Yet all too many employers treat the food issue as an afterthought, in what is, therefore, a missed opportunity to boost staff productivity and morale. Most workplace restaurants, for instance, offer employees a range of unhealthy choices, while vending machines are generally stocked full of sugary and fatty snacks.
But while workplace programmes may focus on wellness and getting people fitter to ensure that they take less time off work, eating the right foods is about making certain that employees are energised and mentally focused on the task in hand rather than just being slumped at their desks.
And there is plenty of research to back this stance up. According to a study by health and wellness programme supplier, Vielife, of 15,000 people in the UK and US, staff members with a poor nutritional balance took 21% more time off sick and demonstrated 11% lower productivity levels than healthier colleagues.
A second research project revealed that the most healthy quartile of the workforce is more productive to the equivalent of seven hours per week than the least healthy quartile.
A third study, this time conducted by the International Labour Office, meanwhile, revealed that a poor on-the-job diet , leading to either malnutrition or excess weight, cut productivity levels by around 20%.
Therefore, its report entitled ‘Food at Work: Workplace solutions for malnutrition, obesity and chronic diseases’ maintained that better nutrition in the workplace could help to raise national productivity rates.
Moreover, for a modest investment in workplace meal programmes, which are quickly repaid in terms of fewer sick days and accidents, it is possible to prevent micronutrient deficiencies and chronic diseases such as obesity.
Making a difference
Workplace wellness programmes, whether they involve exercise, nutritional advice, private healthcare or a combination of all three, are likewise known to improve staff morale, motivation and company loyalty because people feel that they work for an employer that cares.
Such an approach can also lead to an increase in employee recruitment and retention levels and cut company health insurance costs. So the message would appear to be clear. A mind made sluggish by a high-carb lunch washed down with sugary drinks will make more mistakes, have a lower output and show less innovation.
But HR directors are in a unique position to make a difference here. Start by working with your catering or facilities management department or supplier to explore what employees are actually being offered to eat and drink. 
Water consumption is an easy win in this regard because there has been so much press attention on the issue of dehydration lately. Remember that a mere 2% reduction in hydration levels can cut an individual’s concentration by between 10% and 25%, which can, in turn, have a dramatic impact on their work. 
According to the NHS, we should all drink about 1.2 litres of fluid every day– about six 200ml glasses. All non-alcoholic drinks, and even tea and coffee, count here, but water, milk and fruit juice are the healthiest options.
Also ensure that there is plenty of fresh water for people to drink in the staff restaurant, at their desks, in break-out areas or meeting rooms. Fizzy water is a great way to wean people off fizzy, sugary drinks as they feel like they’re getting something a bit more special.
Next turn your attention to food. The problem here is that Western diets contain too much saturated fat and sugar, which encourages obesity and heart disease and tends to make us feel sluggish at work.
Consider replacing meals that are high in carbohydrates such as potatoes, rice and pasta with lighter, high-protein alternatives such as beans, soups and salads.
Egg, tuna, turkey, chicken and cuttlefish make excellent nutritious salads, for example, and can include a wide range of vegetables, with those having red leaves being particularly beneficial.
A healthy diet
If offering pasta, rice and/or bread, however, be sure to use wholegrain alternatives wherever possible as they contain more fibre and make people feel fuller for longer.
Likewise consider providing more fish (the NHS recommends that people eat at least two portions a week) as there are scientifically-proven links between a diet that is high in fish (and the vitamin, Omega 3) and people’s IQ, motor and social skills – as well as their ability to counteract depression.
But don’t forget about your vending machines too, which are typically stocked full of crisps, sweets and chocolate bars.
Just as such items have been banned in schools since 2006, however, it makes sense for employers to follow suit and provide staff with smoothies, juices, packets of nuts, dried fruit, seeds, yoghurt/granola/fruit bars or low sugar cereal bars instead.
But even the food that you provide in meeting rooms can make a difference to both your employees’ health and your corporate reputation. Ditch the meeting room biscuits and cakes and consider stylish graze boxes with dried fruits, nuts and seeds instead.
Or if your budget is a healthy one, offer prepared fresh fruit and crudités with dips such as humous. It will become a talking point for visitors.
Another thing to consider, however, is when you actually provide food as an organisation. Many businesses only do so at lunchtime to save on catering costs, which means that some employees miss breakfast or are prone to grab something unhealthy such as a muffin on the way in.
So, if it’s practical, think about offering a breakfast service as research shows that eating this first meal of the day can help people to control their weight more effectively.
Providing juices, wholemeal cereal and toast, fresh fruit and yoghurt on the premises for an hour before the typical worker gets in will also encourage them to get to work earlier, which means that they will likewise spend more time at their desks.
Culture change
Those employers that tend to embrace good nutrition, however, tend to be those that have a board director who has personally experienced the benefits.
And such an advocate ensures not only senior-level buy-in, but also that they will set a visible example, which is essential. If people spot the chief executive bringing in biscuits to meetings or ordering pie and chips for lunch, for instance, healthy eating lower down the ranks is likely to go out of the window.
A healthy eating and living programme will not make an instant difference to everyone’s body shape, however. Most nutritionists recommend trying a new diet or lifestyle for around three months before making any judgments as to its success.
So consider whether to come up with an anonymous pre-programme questionnaire about people’s lifestyles, diets and even weight and fitness levels and repeat it after three months, six months, 12 months and then yearly to get an idea of how their lifestyle has changed.
There may even be some interesting correlations between such changes and their views about the organisation as a result. But even if the shifts aren’t huge, it must be emphasised that even small reductions in sugar intake and better hydration have almost instant benefits on individuals’ mental and physical well-being.
But, as with introducing any cultural change, it’s easy to slip back into bad, old habits once the initial excitement of a ‘new’ initiative has died down. Crisps can start finding their way back into the vending machine and chips can creep back onto the menu.
So it’s important to ensure that any internal communications and marketing plans continue beyond the first few weeks, and that new and interesting tools and campaigns are used to keep the flame alive.
But also remember that balance is everything – too many nutritional programmes are simply a turn-off. As nutritionist Amanda Ursell once said, it “shouldn’t be about wholemeal carrots, stone-ground eggs and free range bread.” 
While lettuce and cottage cheese have their place, the occasional bit of what you fancy with a cappuccino can give you a caffeine boost and provide positive mental and physical results. So naughty can be nice too.

Diana Spellman is managing director of procurement consultants, Partners in Purchasing.

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Diana Spellman

Managing Director

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