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Your Office Snack Pantry Is Killing Productivity. Here’s How to Fix It.

Changing company culture and offering low-cost, healthy office snacks

April 6, 2020 | by Melissa Landon
Reviewed by real estate expert Jonathan Wasserstrum

According to research conducted by the Center for Disease Control, the effects of obesity and poor health cost U.S. companies more than $225 billion per year in lost productivity. Many businesses are at a loss for how to take action. At their worst, health programs can be invasive and overbearing, with negligible results.

“Improving the health and well-being of our employees… offers a ‘win-win’ all around,” said Steve Flanagan, Chief Executive at The Fremantle Trust. “Employees benefit from better support for their health. Companies benefit from less absence and improved productivity. And society benefits from improved public health.”

While nothing is wrong with enjoying the occasional indulgent snack, making a habit of it can have deleterious effects on employee quality of life, productivity, and even morale. Employers need low-cost methods of encouraging healthy behavior, and those that do it well enjoy dramatic long-term business advantages.

In other words, employee health is a big deal and has far-reaching effects. First, let’s take a look at how the quality of your employees’ diets can affect their lives and personal productivity. Then, we’ll discuss how food interacts with company culture and projected success.

Then, we’ll provide a few action steps you can take to show your employees that they matter by helping them make healthy food choices at the office, where they spend the bulk of their waking hours. Finally, we will make a few suggestions for nutritious treats you can keep in the office to help employees satisfy their craving for snacks without eating something full of artificial ingredients or unhealthy fat.

The Effect of Food Choice on Your Employees

Everyone knows eating healthy food is, well, healthy. But many people would be surprised just how much difference a healthy diet can make. Here are just a few ways food choices can impact your employees and their well-being:

Poor diet leads to increased absences

It makes perfect sense: if employees don’t eat well, they’ll be more likely to get sick and start using sick days, which not only means unhappy employees but also means loss of money and productivity. One study reported that employees with poor nutritional habits reported 21% more absences related to illness plus 11% less productivity than their healthier counterparts.

Diet affects brain function and focus

Even if employees are healthy and working in the office, their food choices still affect the workplace. When employees are hungry or eating poorly, they tend to get distracted more easily. This makes them less able to focus, less productive, and even grumpy.

Research shows that food choices actually affect brain function. For example, a 2011 study published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews discussed the “glucose memory facilitation effect,” which posits that maintaining an even glucose level fuels the brain and improves memory. If you create opportunities for your employees to eat snacks including fruits, vegetables, antioxidants, and healthy fats, you’ll be helping them maintain proper glucose levels. Later in this article, we will suggest healthy snacks to keep in the office.

Lack of protein can cause the afternoon slump

We’ve all experienced this. Sometime between 1 and 3 p.m., sometimes you begin to feel sluggish and sleepy; your vision might blur; you might have trouble concentrating; you might even feel moody; you might get a headache or stomach ache. Most people assume this is natural and will head to the kitchen to get coffee assuming they just need some caffeine. However, it is possible to get rid of the afternoon slump—by drinking more water, not skipping meals, and limited carb and sugar intake. To help combat this issue, make sure you offer easily accessible water and healthy snacks for employees. That way it’s easy for them to stay hydrated and choose a suitable afternoon snack to keep them content and productive. A healthy body often means a healthy mind!

Diet affects general health and quality of life

Yes, diet does affect an employee’s productivity level and performance at the office, but businesses should (hopefully) care about their employees’ quality of life as well. A workplace’s positive influence on food choices “as part of a workplace health program can influence [employees’] long-term health and wellness,” according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety website. Specifically, healthy eating programs can reduce risk of heart disease and cancer; boost mood and self-esteem; decrease anxiety and stress; promote healthy weight loss; and increase energy to spend time with family and friends outside of work.

Providing snacks and meals will save your employees money

If employees purchase snacks every week or buy lunch every day, that can add up. Providing the occasional lunch or keeping your office stocked with healthy snacks will not only help your employees make healthier eating choices but also save them money, and everyone appreciates that.

Food and Company Culture

“Although food is a basic human right, vital for good health and ultimately for life itself, to date, the topic of food culture at work has been one of the most overlooked aspects of working life,” according to WE Factory, a workplace eating culture and design hub. Airbnb, Etsy, LinkedIn and other big-name tech companies are providing employees with some kind of food program at work.

A food program is a precise company strategy designed to encompass all food service related activities and services of the company. Your company’s food program refers to how you feed your employees throughout the day, and it can even become part of company culture. Your workplace’s relationship with food can impact not only the individual health of your employees but the overall culture and productivity of your entire business.

Food can affect relationships among employees

90% of employees surveyed said that sharing meals at the workplace assisted them in establishing stronger bonds with their coworkers, according to a ZeroCater survey. There’s nothing wrong with eating meals alone, but providing opportunities for employees to socialize over a free meal without the pressure to discuss work-related topics like they would in an official meeting can really encourage employee friendships.

You can offer food as a benefit or perk

Food is considered one of the most highly ranked amenities a workplace can offer. In fact, one survey found that nearly 40% of employees rank office food right alongside vacation time and professional development. Give the people what they want, right? People have to eat three times per day, so it only makes sense that food choice would affect their choice of workplace. Google, for example, offers 15 cafeterias with free meals for employees. This strategy can reduce time lost as a result of employees’ leaving the office for lunch. Don’t worry if your company’s small size makes including a cafeteria impractical. Buying your employees lunch occasionally can do a lot for morale and possibly even help attract and retain top talent.

Healthier food might turn into lower health insurance costs

If your employees eat healthy food, they may be less likely to get sick. And if they remain healthy, they’re not going to be going to the doctor and racking up medical bills for medicine and treatments.

How to Help Your Employees Eat Healthily

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study indicated that almost 25% of U.S. adults get food or drink at work at least once per week, and most of those foods and beverages are unhealthy—high in calories, added sugars, and sodium. Most of the 5,000 participants surveyed “consumed nearly 1,300 calories from foods and drinks at work per week,” Ashley Welch writes for CBS News.

While you may not be able to follow your employees home and make sure they all eat dinners full of nutrients, research shows that workplace interventions involving education or changes in the environment can significantly influence employee eating habits. “Employers can offer appealing and healthy options in cafeterias, vending machines, and at meetings and social events,” said lead CDC investigator Stephen J. Onufrak, Phd. Here are a few ideas to champion healthy eating habits in the office:

Host healthy potlucks

Try a (100% optional) monthly or quarterly potluck to encourage people to eat a healthy, home-cooked lunch. Employees will have the opportunity to both share a good meal and fellowship with one another, strengthening friendships and meeting people they don’t usually interact with. Establish rules about cleanup beforehand to avoid a mess of dishes and garbage. You could even turn it into a competition. Who doesn’t like a good ol’ fashioned chili cookoff?

As an added bonus, it allows people to be creative and show off their super impressive cooking skills! Those who don’t feel confident in their abilities to cook could bring shredded cheese, sour cream, and other fixings.

Lead by example

Whether you realize it or not, you set an example for your team in both the way you work and the way you live your life. Are you presenting a model of a good lifestyle that people can follow? Eat breakfast. Don’t skip lunch. Eat healthy snacks. Grab a banana instead of a chocolate treat. Drink water. Since they see you making healthy choices, maybe they will, too.

Stock the fridge and pantry with healthy snacks

This is very obvious, but people can only eat the food that is available to them. Of course, your employees are free to bring whatever they want from home, but you can simply do your part to offer healthy solutions by stocking the office with healthy snacks. See the next section for some ideas of what to add to the kitchen.

Display the healthy food; hide the unhealthy food

If you think employees will be upset if you remove all sweet and savory snack options, then you can try putting the less healthy choices in inconvenient places. For example, you can put the water bottles right next to the front desk but stash the soda on the top shelf in the back of the refrigerator. Or, you can place a bowl of fruit in the center of the break room table and close the cookies and potato chips in a cabinet or drawer.

Order a snack box

If you don’t have the time or wherewithal to go out and buy (or have someone else go out and buy) healthy snacks for the office, you can also order a snack box that comes full of a variety of options for your employees to enjoy. Here are some products your employees might enjoy. Snack Nation provides 150 single-serve snacks, and delivery is free. Nature Box offers unlimited snacks for a fixed price per employee. Variety and snack rotation are important to employees. In one survey, 56% of respondents said variety is the most important factor when it comes to office snacks.

Poll your employees

Before you start filling the kitchen with food, send out a company-wide survey with some open-ended questions. Employees willing to share may let you know they only eat raw vegan food, prefer organic options, or are trying out a gluten-free diet. That kind of information can help you make informed choices—and make changes your employees will love.

Provide Low-Cost, Healthy Office Snacks

If you decide to lead the charge for healthy living by stocking your office kitchen and pantry with the best healthy snack options for your employees, you certainly have more options than just black coffee and a basket of peppermints. Get creative—you might buy olive oil or almond butter instead of regular butter. You can pack the kitchen with snacks rich in flavor but not in sugar. Here are just a few popular ideas to add to and keep on your company grocery list:

Fruit

Both fresh fruit and dried fruit can help keep your blood sugar at a healthy level so you don’t have to resort to snacks like candy bars, which are loaded with unhealthy ingredients. Fruit is always a good choice because many types don’t require preparation (for example, pineapples need to be cut, but apples are just grab-and-go) and can sit for several days without going bad. Also, fruit is portable, so employees could just grab one or two from the kitchen and head back to the office to eat it. Some favorites include apples, pears, bananas, oranges, blueberries, grapes, clementines, and dried fruit mix.

Yogurt

If you have an office fridge, you can store a variety of yogurt options for your employees’ enjoyment. Yogurt, considered a superfood, is full of vitamins, minerals, and probiotics. It’s good for digestion, bone density, the immune system, and blood pressure. Avoid yogurts that contain significant amounts of added sugar. Instead, try Greek yogurt.

Keto and paleo diet-friendly items

Try providing low-carb, high protein options like beef jerky, eggs, string cheese, or protein bars. Protein bars make great afternoon snacks to tide you over until dinner, and they can usually stay in the cabinets for several weeks before going stale. Here are some brands to try: Health Warrior Chia Protein Bar, Junobar, Zing Nutrition Bar, and Balance.

Vegetables and hummus

Vegetables are some of the best foods you can eat. And most of them are crunchy and fun to eat. Try them with dips or salad dressing to make them even more delicious. Sometimes people eat vegetables with cream-based dip, which makes the snack less healthy. Hummus is made of chickpeas and is much healthier than other vegetable dips. Stock your office kitchen or fridge with avocados, celery sticks, baby carrots, bell pepper strips, and even salad greens.

Trail mix

You can buy this in bulk or get it in individual portions for easy distribution. Trail mix might include a variety of flavors, like dried fruit, various nuts, seeds, granola and even mini dark chocolate chips. Some nuts and seeds even contain omega-3 fatty acids, which support healthy body function. You can also make your own trail mix. If you leave a bowl full of it on the break room table, employees can simply fill a plastic cup and snack on it at their desks.

Salty snacks

Providing healthy, salty snacks in the kitchen is a great way to help employees avoid snacking on bags of chips and other less healthy alternatives and instead curb their hunger with a handful of healthy office snacks. Try stocking up on things like almonds or roasted nuts, sunflower seeds, popcorn, Nature Valley granola bars, and peanut butter and crackers.

Gluten free

Gluten-free diets are becoming more popular with the rise of celiac disease and gluten intolerance. Many gluten-free snacks are delicious and a great source of protein fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Options include yogurt with granola, rice cakes and peanut butter, sweet potato chips, instant oatmeal, and popcorn.

Healthy drinks

Unhealthy snacking isn’t the only problem: the stresses of the office might tempt employees to grab a can of soda or an energy drink in the afternoon, especially if they don’t have a healthy option. Besides ensuring employees have easy access to water, consider also including other, better beverage options like lemonade, green tea, hot cocoa mix packets, low fat smoothies, fruit juice, or Ice, a popular brand of sugarless, carbonated water. You might even try buying milk. Most adults don’t get the daily recommended amount of calcium.

Serving up Success at the Office

Now that you know how food can affect your employees, how you can help them make positive choices, and what you can bring into the office for healthy snack choices, it’s time to implement some of these ideas into your workplace. You may not be able to change the whole office’s relationship with food in a couple of days or weeks, but employees will notice if you begin making an effort.

Before you start budgeting to provide your employees with 15 meals per week or fill the entire kitchen every day, take a deep breath. A simple change goes a long way! Perhaps you could begin heading in the right direction by bringing in a fruit basket on Mondays and planning a potluck for next month. Little by little, you can definitely make a difference in your employees’ well-being and your company’s success.

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