Is your office making you fat?
Even as you hit the gym, trying to look respectable in your summer shorts, the junk food in your workplace might be pushing you toward extra pounds. From bags of chips in the vending machines to trays of cookies at meetings, offices have become a calorie minefield. Many of the most health-conscious employees find it daunting to resist the high-calorie treats lurking in the lunchroom and office cubicles.
Changing the culture, though, isn’t easy. It’s often the candy bar or Dr. Pepper that sustains us when we’re feeling the stress of scoring a sale or hitting a deadline. And sharing sugary treats often is a way for co-workers to bond. “Our culture is to celebrate office birthdays with cake and ice cream, not with apples,” says Lindsay Scherr, president of Endlessly Organic, a South Florida organic buying club. “That’s the challenge that employers come up against.”
While plenty of employers have hosted health fairs and launched wellness programs, only now are they focusing on workplace eating habits. Businesses are swapping out offerings in vending machines and rethinking meal choices in the company cafeteria. Some even have implemented policies that require healthier food options be served at staff meetings or employee events.
Baptist Health South Florida, one of the area’s largest private employers, has been working to change the workplace eating habits of its employees for more than seven years. It started with introducing healthier meals in the cafeteria. Low-fat, low-calorie meals are not only marked as more nutritional, they’re cheaper for employees.
From there, Baptist Health moved on to replacing up to half of the high-fat, salty, and sugary items in vending machines with more nutritional choices. Water has replaced soda as the prominent option in the beverage dispenser and is sold at a lower price point. “From time to time the changes are met with grumbles but we’re not removing choices entirely, we’re just giving healthy options,” says Maribeth Rouseff, who oversees employee-wellness initiatives at Baptist Health.
The hospital system has also brought in produce-buying clubs and onsite farmer’s markets. Even more, it has created a policy for what can be served at company meetings (no pizza or chips) and mandates managers use approved vendors who have agreed to abide by the nutrition policy. Most employees understand the personal benefits of the changes, said Rouseff. For every dollar the company spends on wellness, it saves almost $6 in health costs.
Of course, changes are met with some push back. Employees willingly attend onsite health fairs and will even participate in screenings. But wellness directors say they don’t dare take the Coca-Cola out of vending machines or remove the office candy bowl.
Employers have found nutritional education plays a big role in how well changes are accepted. Illinois-based Earth Friendly Products started with health days once a year to emphasize nutritional eating but ramped up food education as its workplaces underwent a nutrition overhaul during the past three years. The eco-friendly, cleaning-products company has 250 employees in five divisions, including 26 at its plant in Opa-locka.
Nadereh Afsharmanesh, director of sustainability at Earth Friendly Products, says she has removed all sugary soda and high-fat snacks from workplace vending machines and made a daily piece of fruit and herbal teas free and available to every employee. She also requires the food trucks that sell to its warehouse workers to provide more healthy options. “We’re serious about our workers’ health and well being.”
Much like Baptist Health, the company has a policy for what food can be served at internal events and it has instituted Meatless Monday, encouraging workers to avoid eating meat at the office one day a week — even giving out samples of meatless foods. The next phase: giving every employee a juicer, with recipes, and encouraging them to bring their fresh juice to work. “It’s something our CEO came up with,” Afsharmanesh said.
Afsharmanesh says she accompanies changes with an intense educational component, explaining how and why to eat well at work and home.
She continuously speaks to employees, invites them to workshops, and sends out articles on how to improve their diets and increase their physical activity.
Since the program began, company health premiums have dropped 13 percent, she says. “When we started, there was so much resistance. Now that [employees] know why the changes are good for them and they feel a difference, they have come around.”
Many small businesses also are interested in creating opportunities for workers to improve their health, but they don’t know where to start, research by the National Small Business Association shows.
Small-business owner Carol Brooks mounted her healthy eating campaign with a comprehensive approach. Almost daily, Brooks, co-founder of Continental Real Estate Companies in Coral Gables, wards off unhealthy afternoon snacking by organizing smoothie breaks for employees. During staff and client meetings, she serves fresh fruits and vegetables and the latest in organic drinks, including coconut water and green tea.
Brooks also has created a Facebook page for her company’s wellness initiative, where employees post pictures of their healthy lunch options. “For many employees, the office is a second home where they spend anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of their waking hours. Why not introduce wellness principles like healthy eating where they stand to benefit most?” she says.
Camaraderie plays a role, too. Fighting the snack attack is much more effective with a squad of co-workers, says Carmen Diaz, a South Florida dietician. On their own, staffers might grab that bag of salty goodness lurking in the depths of a desk drawer. But if an office creates a share shelf or bowl stocked with whole grain crackers, fruit, and granola bars, it becomes a lot easier to avoid a 4 p.m. onslaught of junk food, she says.
For one employer, healthy eating starts with creating a space for employees to share conversation and a nutritious meal — an onsite café. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables has made changes to its cafeteria to encourage employees to grab healthier meals at work. The attraction recently rolled out a new menu at its renovated café with healthier dishes that include organic and locally grown food. Employees pay $8 for a lunch that includes a nutritious meal, drink, and fruit — a discount of 20 percent.
Meanwhile, Scherr is riding the corporate-wellness wave by delivering organic fruits and vegetables to businesses whose employees have joined her buying club. Her customers include big companies, such as Royal Caribbean Cruise Line and smaller businesses in downtown office towers. Scherr says workplaces become the drop-off location for employees who buy a share of crops to take home. Employers often buy a share for office use — stocking lunchrooms and fruit bowls with healthy snacking options.
“In the office, people will grab whatever is free and convenient,” Scherr says. “Business owners are starting to understand that and make healthier choices available.”
Scherr says employees who resist workplace bans on treats or a new office-wide emphasis on trimming waistlines tend to give in once they see co-workers looking and feeling better. “That’s a process that takes time and motivation but eventually it becomes a culture.”
Workplace columnist Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life. Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org or worklifebalancingact.com.