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How to implement healthy eating habits in the workplace

Eight ways to encourage healthier eating habits among employees and help fuel productive working days

In the workplace, effective nutrition-focused wellness initiatives have been shown to create savings on healthcare costs, improve productivity, and even increase work morale. Food fuels the body and brain, so what employees eat can make or break whether they have a highly productive, efficient day or a slow, listless one.

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However when it comes to dietary changes, workers don’t want to be preached to by their employer. Instead, to implement healthy eating habits in the workplace, the key is to provide health hacks and smarter eating strategies that empower employees to enjoy a healthy lifestyle. Here's how:

1. Educate and inspire with nutrition-focused lunch-and-learns

Nutrition-focused workplace wellness initiatives are key to educating and inspiring employees to make healthier dietary choices that can enhance energy, cognitive performance and even mood.

Lunch-and-learns are a time-efficient way to empower busy employees to make positive dietary changes. Topics can range from which foods boost brainpower and mood, to how to eat for a high-energy workday and even dietary advice to support immunity all year round.

On a more practical level, recipe workshops can encourage employees to put knowledge into practice, by inspiring them to create healthy lunches and snacks to boost their work performance.

2. Consider express nutrition clinic days

Employees included in the 2016 Financial Times Health at Work survey identified access to a nutritionist as having the highest potential health improvement rate. A 30-minute express nutrition consultation held in the office can be an efficient way for an employee to obtain personalised dietary advice and overcome their barriers to change.

3. Lead by example and listen to your employees' needs

Implementing nutrition-focused wellness programmes into an office can fall on deaf ears if it’s not tailored to the employees' needs. Each company is unique, therefore nutrition initiatives should be bespoke and flexible to suit the workforce.

A key aspect of a good nutrition intervention is to involve employees in the planning and execution. Providing a pre-programme questionnaire and appointing wellbeing champions to part deliver training can be an efficient way of encouraging dietary change. Engaging employees with competitions such as developing recipes for healthy heart month can be a fast track way of building momentum.

What’s more, if senior members are seen to take the time to engage in nutrition-focused wellness interventions such as attending lunch-and-learns, it can set the precedent for the rest of the staff.

4. Encourage lunch breaks

A recent survey by Reed found that 68% of people don’t take their full lunch break and two in three don’t eat lunch at all.

While it may seem like employees could be more efficient by forgoing their lunch breaks to spend more time working, this isn’t necessarily true. A 2018 survey showed that 90% of employees who took a proper lunch break felt more refreshed and ready to get back to work. What’s more, getting active during lunchtime has also been shown to improve concentration, mood and productivity at work.

Encouraging employees to take lunch breaks and even organising lunchtime group walks can help increase productivity.

6. Nutritional nudging and healthy snacking

Cake tray culture is rife within many workplaces. Recent research found that cakes/sweet treats were regularly displayed in the main working area for 70% of employees. Close to 60% of employees said they found it hard to refuse office cake if everyone else is eating it, and almost all (95%) thought that sweet treats should only be on display once a week or less.

While there is nothing wrong with enjoying an afternoon sweet treat, an abundance of energy dense sweet foods can increase the risk of weight gain and associated health conditions. This, in turn, may increase absenteeism and reduce productivity.

When it comes to office snacking, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ really is key. Remove barriers to change and get to the root cause of the issue by providing healthier office snacks for longer-lasting energy and optimal brain function.

Snacks that balance blood sugar and provide an element of protein and fibre are a top choice for productivity. Try fresh fruit, nut butters, natural yoghurt, hummus with crudités, oatcakes with healthy toppings such as cottage cheese and tomato. For a sweeter alternative, opt for dark chocolate, energy balls or low sugar wholemeal banana loaf.

7. Sit-stand workstations and walking meetings

If employees feel sluggish and tired, it could be down to their sedentary lifestyles, including sitting at a desk all day. Office workers spend 70-85% of their time sitting at work meaning that they are currently one of the most sedentary populations, according to academic studies. Even when adults meet the physical activity guidelines, sitting for prolonged and unbroken periods of time has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and even weight gain.

Research published in the British Medical Journal found that sit-stand workstations could improve markers of health and even boost work performance. These height adjustable stations were implemented in the trial involving 146 NHS staff. Over a 12-month period, results showed an improvement in job performance, work engagement, occupational fatigue, presenteeism, daily anxiety and quality of life.

Walking meetings are another way of encouraging activity, with the exercise and fresh air helping to also increase creativity and concentration.

8. Provide water stations with a twist

It’s a no-brainer that dehydration can cause a drop in workplace productivity. Dehydration can impair cognitive performance, particularly for tasks which require attention and concentration, and reduce an individual's complex problem-solving and coordination capabilities.

Many of us forget to drink or simply just don’t like the taste of water. Provide water stations in the main working area or infuse water with berries and mint for a tastier beverage. Herbal and fruit teas all count towards our fluid intake. In the summer months teas can be chilled to make a refreshing flavoursome iced tea.

Implementing educational material and signs within the office can also act as a reminder for employees to drink more water.

Lily Soutter is a London-based nutritionist