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.”