During the month of May the SCPN led a social media campaign to promote health in the workplace. We encouraged our followers to take
part in a #worksitewander to get more people taking part in physical activity during their lunch breaks and working day. We
have had conversations about workplace eating and an often cake-filled working environment. Lou Walker a workplace health and wellbeing consultant, wrote us an excellent blog on this often challenging issue…
Ask people what they think about workplace cake and you discover it’s a contentious issue. My research surveyed nearly 1000 UK office workers (see previous SCPN blog – https://thescpn.org/OfficeCake) and found that office cake changed people’s eating behaviour and made workplaces less healthy (1-3). But while 31% of respondents reported it led to weight gain and 37% said it made it hard to eat healthily at work, 81% said it brings people together and 83% said it cheers people up. So how do we make sense of these opposing ideas? Is there a way to harness the morale-boosting capabilities while minimising the health consequences? I think so. But we need to think differently.
‘Commensality’ is the technical term for groups of people eating together and sharing food. It’s as old as civilisation and could even be the basis of society itself. When our ancestors lived in caves and hunted mammoths, successful hunters celebrated and shared the food with the rest of their community (4). Today, research shows we associate food-sharing with cooperation, trust and a close connection between eating companions (5-8).
In his book “The Little Book of Lykke” (‘lykke’ is Danish for happiness) Meik Wiking says, “[Food]
feeds our friendships, bolsters our bonds and nourishes our sense of community – and those factors
are vital to our happiness. Whether you look at the English word ‘companion’, the Spanish word ‘compañero’ or the French ‘copain’, they all originate from the Latin ‘com’ and ‘panis’ meaning ‘with whom one shares bread’.”
In the workplace, researchers have found that work colleagues who eat together tend to co-operate more and perform better (9). Cooperation, trust, performance: these all contribute to a healthy, productive workplace (10). But (and I’m afraid it’s a big but), three quarters of the office cake research respondents said cake was displayed on a desk for people to help themselves to during the day1-3. Does this provide commensality benefits? No, because there’s no ‘together’ or ‘sharing’.
This makes office cake a health risk, because it makes it easy for people to eat excess, sugary food even when they’re not hungry (something humans are programmed to do). So ‘together’ and ‘sharing’ are key to commensality, not the food.
In Sweden, the concept of ‘fika’ – taking a break to socialise and connect with friends and colleagues, is an important part of the culture and embedded in many workplaces. The focus is on the socialising, not the food – you can’t ‘fika’ alone at your desk. The tradition of ‘tea and
toast’ in the British Army developed in the first world war to boost morale and continues today as a way for mixed ranks to connect and sort out problems informally. A serving Army captain recently told me that often there’s no tea and no toast but ‘T&T’ continues as a valued tradition.
Given the opportunity, I bet people would come up with ways to eat with colleagues to enjoy the benefits without the sugar. Picnic lunch, with everyone contributing something for people to share? Walking to the pub together once a month for lunch, then walking back? A monthly breakfast?
None of this is as easy as popping to the supermarket to buy some doughnuts and you couldn’t do it every day. But another key finding from the research was that 95% of respondents thought the ideal frequency for office cake was once a week or less. Workplaces could combine this knowledge with the concept of commensality to make cake special again– something for people to look forward to once a week, once a month or whatever they feel is right. That would reduce the health risk while boosting the social benefits. Sounds like a win win …
See our blog site – https://scpnblog. wordpress.com/ for more exciting blogs published during May’s workplace health campaign including;
• Whether a worksitewander or 5 minute stretch? (https://scpnblog. wordpress.com/2019/05/25/whether-a-worksitewander-or-5-minute- stretch-remember-every-little-counts/)
• Living the message at WCRF International (https://scpnblog. wordpress.com/2019/05/18/living-the-message/)
• Small Changes BIG impacts (https://scpnblog.wordpress. com/2019/05/02/small-changes-make-big-impacts/)