If we are what we eat, then what kind of work force do we have?

What we eat has a big impact on our performance at work – from mental clarity, to energy, stamina and productivity, food governs how well our bodies and brains function. Food makes our mood. Yet food at work is too often seen as an afterthought by employers and is a missed opportunity to increase productivity and morale. Staff restaurants typically offer unhealthy selections while vending machines are stocked with sugary and fatty snacks. Employers’ workplace programmes focus on wellness – getting people fitter ­– and how healthy employers take less time off work. But ensuring your employees are eating the right foods is about increasing presenteeism — employees being fully engaged, energised and mentally focused on the task in hand not sitting slumped at their desks.

And there is plenty of research to back this up. According to a Vielife study of 15,000 people in the UK and US, employees with poor nutritional balance reported 21 per cent more sick-related absence and 11 per cent lower productivity than healthier colleagues. Meanwhile another research project showed that the most healthy quartile of the workforce is seven hours more productive a week than the least healthy quartile.


Another study, this time by the International Labour Office, revealed that poor diet on the job costs countries around the world up to 20 per cent in lost productivity, either due to malnutrition or excess weight. Food at Work: Workplace solutions for malnutrition, obesity and chronic diseases says better nutrition in the workplace can raise national productivity rates, while workplace meal programmes can prevent micronutrient deficiencies and chronic diseases such as obesity with modest investments that can be repaid in reduction of sick days and accidents.


In addition workplace wellness programmes, whether they involve exercise, nutrition, private healthcare or a combination of all three, are known to improve morale, motivation and company loyalty (people feel they work for a company that cares), and increase the recruitment and retention of staff. They also decrease company health insurance costs.

The message is clear. A mind made sluggish by a high-carb lunch washed down with sugary drinks will make more mistakes, have lower output and less innovation. HR directors are in an unique position to make a positive contribution to a company’s fitness to compete.

Start by working with your catering or facilities management department or supplier and look at what you’re offering employees.  Water consumption is an easy win as there has been so much press attention on the issue of dehydration. A 2 per cent reduction in hydration reduces concentration levels by between 10-25 per cent which can have a dramatic impact on someone’s work.  According to the NHS, we should drink about 1.2 litres of fluid every day– about six 200ml glasses. All non-alcoholic drinks count, even tea and coffee, but water, milk and fruit juice is the healthiest. Ensure that there is plenty of fresh water for people to use in the staff restaurant, at their desks, in break-out areas and meeting rooms. Fizzy water is a great way to wean people off fizzy, sugary drinks – they feel they’re getting something special.

Then turn to the food. Western diets contain too much saturated fat and sugar which encourages obesity and heart disease and for us to feel sluggish at work. Consider replacing meals high in carbs such as potatoes, rice and pasta with lighter, high-protein alternatives such as beans, soups or salads; egg, tuna, turkey, chicken and cuttlefish make excellent nutritious salads using a wide range of vegetables especially those with red leaf varieties. Use wholegrain alternatives for pasta, rice and bread wherever possible as they contain more fibre and make people feel fuller for longer. Consider offering more fish (the NHS recommends people eat at east two portions a week) as there are direct scientific links between a diet high in fish (and the vitamin Omega 3) and people’s IQ, motor and social skills and ability to counteract depression.

Don’t forget vending machines which typically contain crisps and chocolate bars. Just as this content have been banned in schools since 2006, it makes sense for employers to follow suit and provide smoothies, juices, packets of nuts, dried fruit, seeds, yoghurt/granola/fruit bars or low sugar cereal bars instead of salty crisps and sweets.

Even the food 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. Or for bigger budgets, have prepared fresh fruit and crudités with healthy dips such as humous. It will become a talking point for visitors.

Also look at when you are providing food. Many businesses only provide food at lunchtime to save on catering costs which means that some employees will slip breakfast, or grab something unhealthy such as a muffin, on the way in. Consider offering a breakfast service within your organisation, if practical. Research shows that eating breakfast can help people control their weight better. Providing juices, wholemeal cereal and toast, fresh fruit and yoghurt on the premises from an hour before the typical worker gets in, will also encourage people to get to work earlier, meaning they spend more time at their desks.

The organisations which embrace good nutrition tend to be those that have a board director who has personally seen the benefits. Ensuring not only senior-level buy-in but also a board member setting a visible example is essential. People are going to ignore it pretty swiftly, if they spot the CEO bringing in biscuits to meetings or ordering pie and chips as a special favour.

A healthy eating and living programme is not going to make an instant body shape difference. Most nutritionists recommend trying a new diet or lifestyle for around three months before making any judgments about its success. Consider doing an anonymous pre-programme questionnaire about people’s lifestyles, diets and even weight and fitness levels and then repeating the survey after three months, six months, 12 months and then yearly to get a view of how people’s lifestyle has changed and continues to develop. There may also be some interesting correlations about their views about the organisation as a result. However it must be emphasized that small changes in sugar reduction and increasing hydration have almost instant metal and well-being benefits.

As with organisations introducing any type of cultural change management, it’s easy to slip back into old, bad habits once the initial excitement of the ‘new’ policy has died down. Crisps start finding themselves back in the vending machine and chips on the menu. It’s important to ensure that any internal communications and marketing plan continues beyond the first few weeks, and that new and interesting campaigns and tools are used to continue to keep the interest.

Remember, balance is everything. Too many nutrition programmes are a turn off. The nutritionist Amanda Ursell says that they “shouldn’t be about wholemeal carrots, stone ground eggs and free range bread.”  Lettuce and cottage cheese have their place, but the occasional slice of “what you fancy” with a cappuccino occasionally can give people a caffeine boost and provide great mental and physical results. Naughty can be good.