“Older people shouldn’t eat health food”, joked the American comedy writer Robert Orben. “They need all the preservatives they can get.” Of course, in reality, good nutrition brings numerous benefits. It can increase mental acuteness, help prevent illness, promote higher energy levels, and help to foster a positive outlook. The list is endless, and very encouraging from an employer’s perspective. After all, a happy and healthy (ageing) workforce translates into a happy, healthy and more productive organisation.
Much has been written about the office now accommodating four generations working side by side. Increasing numbers of people are now working into their 70s. The Office of National Statistics found that employment among the over-65s rose by 104,000 to 870,000 in 2010, which means that people over 65 now make up 3 per cent of the workforce, up from 1.5 per cent in 2001. This is due, in part, to the removal, last October, of the compulsory retirement age, prohibiting employers from forcing retirement on employees at 65, and the fact that many people’s pensions fall short of their requirements. According to a recent ICM survey, only 30 per cent of people have made adequate provision for their retirement.
Many organisations, too, are ill-prepared for the inevitable ageing process, and give little attention to the benefits and policies that might be introduced to accommodate their ageing workforce. Older people – an arbitrary term; The World Health Organization classifies people aged between 45 and 59 as middle age, 60 to 74 as elderly and over 75 as old – often bring a wealth of wisdom and experience, long-established working relationships and a confident resilience under pressure that flourishes with age, not to mention a focus and a loyalty that younger generations can lack.
But age also brings sickness including chronic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and arthritis. The Health and Safety Executive notes a difference in sickness absence patterns between younger and older workers. Typically, younger workers are absent more often, but for shorter periods of time, whereas older workers are more likely to be off work for a whole week or more. One third of the workforce is managing a chronic illness by age 50, according to the Institute for Employment Studies.
Diet plays a vital role in maintaining health for everyone, but it is especially important for older people. Although they require the same nutrients as younger adults, many older people can no longer stomach much food and so get too few nutrients. Combined with digestive problems, this can cause malnutrition, which can lead to fatigue, depression, a weakened immune system, anemia, weakness, and digestive, lung and heart problems.
Diet and productivity are also intricately linked. According to a Vielife study of 15,000 people in the UK and US, employees with poor nutritional balance reported 11 per cent lower productivity than healthier colleagues (and 21 per cent more sick-related absence). Food governs how well our bodies and brains function, fostering mental clarity, high energy and the stamina to get through a challenging working day. Yet, employers are too often reluctant to provide good food in the workplace due to financial constraints or because they’ve always done something a certain way. Staff restaurants typically offer cheap, unhealthy selections while vending machines and meeting rooms are stocked with sugary and fatty snacks. The solution? Facilities managers, working together with their catering counterparts, can play a big part in ensuring an organisation’s employees, including older workers, are eating the right foods. In this way, FMs will help to boost productivity and morale, while ensuring that staff feel supported and appreciated.
Many of the men and woman running the biggest, most influential companies in the world are older workers. According to research by the specialist recruitment consultancy Robert Half, the average age of a FTSE CEO is around 52 while global CEOs are older – with an average age of 56 years.
Partners In Purchasing sources and provides food for many of these global executives to meet their highly tailored and sophisticated dietary needs. These executives understand precisely how important their dietary intake is and the knock-on effect food has on their performance, their agility of mind and body, and their ability to rest and play. Some of them swear by health tonics – liquid preparations containing a combination of herbs, vitamins and minerals – sourced from around the world, as well as superfoods and berries to snack on such as blueberries, acai berries, cranberries, strawberries, and cherries. A few years ago, the goji berry came to the West’s attention as a miracle food, and celebrities including Madonna, Paula Abdul, Mischa Barton and Elizabeth Hurley have been advocates ever since. It’s said to slow the ageing process and treat many common health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure and fever.
Other executives prefer to stick to a simple, balanced diet and regular exercise. There’s never going to be a one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition and good health. Personal taste and budgets will always influence what a person decides to have for their weekday breakfast, lunch and mid-afternoon snack. But there are generally-accepted best practices, which FMs would do well to consider when taking into account food provision for workers, young and old.
Many older people don’t actually need to eat as much as when they were young because they tend to be less active. Also, the lean muscle in the body begins to decrease with age which leads to a fall in the basic metabolic rate. The National Institute of Aging in the US recommends that a woman over 50 who is not physically active, such as a desk-based worker, needs about 1,600 calories a day (a younger female needs around 2,000 calories). A man over 50 in the same position needs about 2,000 calories a day (a younger man needs about 2,500). Starting at around aged 40, the average person puts on a pound every year, which means that by 60 they could be carrying an extra 20 pounds and be at risk of heart disease and diabetes. FMs will want to cater for this by offering nutritious snack options and not just full-plate meals.
Saturated fat intake is another area that older people especially should monitor. As people age, their arteries can become more clogged which affects the flow of blood to the heart (eventually leading to a heart attack) or to the brain (leading to a stroke). Instead of tucking into cheese sandwiches, burgers and processed meats, opt for food packed with good fats such as olive oil, avocados, salmon and nuts. The fat from these sources can protect the body against heart disease by controlling bad LDL cholesterol levels and raising good HDL cholesterol levels.
Getting enough fibre, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D and vitamin C is also vital for older people. Fibre from high-fibre cereal foods, fruit and vegetables prevents constipation, bowel problems and other issues related to a poorly functioning digestive system. Fruit and vegetables are also an important source of vitamin C, which boosts the immune system and prevents colds by protecting cells and keeping them healthy. Vitamin D is important to help to regulate the calcium and phosphate levels in the body, which keeps bones and teeth healthy. Calcium and vitamin D supplements may help to slow the rate of calcium loss from bones, which starts at the age of 30 and sometimes leads to osteoporosis. Vitamin D can be found in oily fish, such as salmon and sardines, and eggs but mostly comes from exposing skin to sunlight (the lack of sunshine in the UK means that 25 per cent of us are short of vitamin D). Iron intake is also important given that anaemia, producing tiredness and lethargy, is common in older people. Iron levels can be boosted by eating red meat or foods from non-meat sources such as fortified cereals, dried fruit, pulses and green leafy vegetables every day.
The benefits to older people, everyone in fact, of eating a balanced diet full of fruit and vegetables, good carbohydrates, good fats and proteins; eating small portions regularly to prevent blood sugar levels from fluctuating drastically; and limiting sugar, caffeine and alcohol intake can’t be overstated. Increasing water consumption is another easy win. A 2 per cent reduction in hydration reduces concentration levels by between 10 and 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. All non-alcoholic drinks count, but water, milk and fruit juice are the healthiest. FMs might look to stock fridges with still and fizzy water, a great and healthy alternative to fizzy, sugary, energy-sapping sodas.
Vending machines should also be a focus for FMs. Machines filled with junk food have been banned in schools since 2006, with good reason. 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 provided in meeting rooms can make a difference to both employees’ health and the corporate reputation. Ditch the biscuits and cakes and consider stylish graze boxes with dried fruits, nuts and seeds. Or, for bigger budgets, have catering prepare fresh fruit and crudités with healthy dips such as humous. This will be a positive talking point for visitors.
Given the link between food and productivity, food and health in older age, and the fact that the UK workforce is ageing, employers, and in turn FMs and caterers, really can’t afford to ignore the business case for doing all that they can to encourage staff to eat well. If employers want to reap the rewards of having an increasing number of older people on their teams, they must cater for their needs.
And for the individual, it doesn’t necessarily pay to be too strict with your diet or exercise. According to research from Dr Michael Mosley a few relatively short bursts of intense exercise, amounting to only a few minutes a week, can deliver many of the health and fitness benefits of hours of conventional exercise. And a little bit of what you fancy does you good. A delicious cappuccino (caffeine is said to increase memory) or a bar of organic dark chocolate (rich in cell-protecting antioxidants) on a Friday afternoon might be exactly the start to the weekend you need.
And, trust me, stay away from the preservatives.