What we eat plays an important role in our ability to focus. Our choices around what and when we eat and drink affects our productivity, energy and general mood. It directly impacts the quality and quantity of our output at work. It compounds within small teams and has an even greater effect.
It’s been shown that those who form new habits around drinking plenty of water and eating the right foods see a better version of themselves within just a few days. Measurably better.
These simple insights into diet aren’t new information though. Most people are already aware that more water, less salt and less sugar are recommended for health and mood. People don’t do their body damage intentionally, but through choosing the path of least resistance when it comes to workplace food and drink habits.
The moral dilemma is of course, do we have any right influencing these choices and the diets of those we work with?
Between 1997 and 2018 the number of employers implementing employee monitoring in the US grew from 35% to 80%. Employee output and behaviour are routinely monitored during work hours. Disciplinary procedures are applied to any poor performance caused by behaviour or choices during personal time, such as the impact of a night of heavy drinking, drug taking or self-inflicted tiredness.
Personal behaviour itself is rarely monitored, although some employers use in-work random drug testing where safety is critical, such as for those driving heavy machinery. It’s rare that employees are drinking alcohol, taking drugs or requiring sleep—beyond the odd power nap—during working hours. We generally only need to know the employee is in good enough condition to do their job, not any specifics about they are doing outside office hours in their own time.
Unlike alcohol and sleep however, food and diet choices do happen during working hours. Your team members need to eat and drink at work, and due to shared lunch hours, that is something people often do together, buying similar foods from the same cafe, shop or restaurant.
The fact is you’re probably already influencing the diet of your team members, and they are likely to be influencing each others’ diets too. Whether it be group lunches, meetings over lunch time, shared snack food as a Friday treat, work celebration or a personal event like a birthday or anniversary.
It’s common that when food and drink are brought into a shared space for celebrations or meetings, at least some—and often all—of it will be high sugar or salt.
Pizza, Chinese food, burgers, even sandwiches or subs can be high is salt and sugar. Drinks are often either alcoholic for a celebration or high sugar fizzy drinks with group takeaways. Meal deals in supermarkets often encourage crisps and high sugar cans of drink.
The opposite of excess can be true too. Some teams have schedules that make skipping either breakfast or lunch a regular occurrence. It can be the first thing to go when time pressures exist. Your brain need to be fuelled to work well. A lack of food and water can be as bad as regularly making the wrong choices.
It’s unlikely your team is specifically encouraging each other to skip putting food in their stomachs, but by their actions and expectations that may be the outcome for some employees.
While reading you’ve probably had at least one matching realisation flicker through your mind. You’ve confirmed some or all of the small teams you know match these patterns and behaviours.
If you agree with the idea that you and other members of teams influence each others’ diets, you have three choices.
- Try and halt the practice completely using some posters in the bathrooms, heavy hints about all the food that arrives in the office, and a strongly worded all-hands email.
- Do nothing and let things continue unchanged.
- Consider how the influence from you and others works and whether you can encourage and foster better habits without being heavy handed and falling out about it.
You most likely care about the people you work with. The more closely you work with them, and the more time you spend with them, the more you know about them and the more you want them to be healthy and happy. In small teams you’re often very close to the other members.
Assuming you’ve decided to use your influence for good and not evil, here are just a few ideas to move your team in the right direction. You’ll likely have others.
Make healthy snack choices the easy option. Get a fruit bowl, put it somewhere prominent that people see often. Get sing-off for the small amount of money each week it requires to keep the bowl full of healthy appetising things.
Encourage healthy meeting food choices. If the cost of food for meetings is covered by the business (it should be), then rather than a budget, share a list of options to be chosen from. Remove the financial aspect of the choice and instead guide people to order from places you know offer fewer unhealthy options.
Stop covering alcohol costs. Many businesses do a Friday drinks event or pay for all the drinks at regular social events. Continue to cover low and no alcohol options, but leave alcohol choices and cost to those who are drinking it. It’s often just a few very heavy drinkers binging away anyway and unlikely most will be offended. If you think it’s a tough sell, confirm a positive alternative for where the money will be spent instead.
Make water appealing and easy to access. Whether you grab a water filter for the office fridge and buy some branded drink bottles, or put the water fountain in a more prominent position, you should make water a simple free option. It doesn’t have to be expensive to do so, and it needn’t damage the planet.
Discourage—but don’t ban—eating lunch at desks. Make places inside and out of your workspace more appealing and welcoming to all staff than being sat at their own desk. Ditch the macho games room and make it a calm inviting lunch space. Encourage a shared lunch hour where people sit or chat or walk together.
Cook or make meals for each other. Depending on who is in the team, it may work for a rotating weekly day where you make lunch for the other members of the team. Food made at home is almost always more balanced than purchased pre-prepared food.
These ideas are just suggestions, and they only scrape the surface of how you might handle the challenge of making your teams the best they can be. Just remember that it should all be optional and still be a personal choice for all those who you work with. No rules or shaming are required for these changes to work.
Hopefully the changes you encourage will result in better outcomes for your teams and a generally happier and healthier workplace for everybody.