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The Last Word: Be a Work Foodie

I suspect your workplace Cookie Monsters also would leave that sensible bag full of almonds and dried apricots for a box of Girl Scout cookies.

July 1, 2014
Related Topics: Benefits Design and Communication, Health and Wellness, The Latest, Benefits
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Trailmix July 2014

Two boxes of Girl Scout Thin Mints and a massive bag of trail mix sit on the break-room table. Which goes first, the cookies or the bag of trail mix?

The result: Thin Mints by a mile — at least in my office. In fact, we went through two more boxes of cookies before the trail mix was gone. Oh, and what did Mr. Give Me Quinoa on That Burrito and BTW I Ran a Marathon Last Year dive into first?

The Thin Mints, of course. Duh.

While scientific data has proven elusive, I nonetheless suspect your workplace Cookie Monsters also would leave that sensible bag full of almonds and dried apricots like a jilted bride at the altar and instead hit the dance floor with that green-covered box of Girl Scout cookie goodness. Pop that beat and call a doctor, ’cause I got a bad case of Thin Mint fever!

Setting aside cookies vs. dried cranberries momentarily, I present you with my totally random break-room observation to make a larger point about choices when it comes to our health and well-being. Simply put, we have plenty of them, both at work and at home.

We have lifestyle decisions: smoke or chew gum; wear a motorcycle helmet or risk having your brain splattered across the highway. And, we have nutritional choices: hydrate with H2O or get wired on a 64-ounce Mountain Dew, and the aforementioned trail mix vs. Thin Mint conundrum.

While the law can regulate some of our choices, like helmets, seat belts and where and when you can light up a smoke, employers are limited in what they can do to promote a healthier lifestyle. Despite the fact that we hear again and again that a healthy employee is a productive employee, bosses are largely relegated to the sidelines as cheerleaders: 2-4-6-8, who does our health plan appreciate? The veggie-eating nonsmoker!

The obsession with weight loss hampers what can be a truly effective nutrition program.

Seriously, what are employers’ options? Create a wellness plan, implement it, draw some conclusions and then pray like hell that the huge chunk of money you just dropped on wellness shows some results. The other option is to manage in a more enlightened way. Give workers more control over their work. More job security and less stress.

We’ve reached a point with employee wellness plans where skepticism is storming the gates of the advocates. We read more and more reports like this year’s Rand Corp. report that after an exhaustive seven-year study, PepsiCo’s wellness program offered no significant effect on health costs.

But … everyone wants wellness, right? No one wants to be sick, right? And employers have the cure for their workforce’s ills … right?

Well, maybe. Their hearts and intentions certainly are in the right place even if the goal is to cut health care spending. And while the phone apps and wearable gear are trendy tools to draw in the staff, maybe it instead should start on the break-room table where that big bag of trail mix squares off with boxes of cookies.

A couple of months back, I was virtually introduced to Dr. Elizabeth Klodas, a cardiologist and nutrition expert in Minneapolis. In the pricey quest for the perfect wellness program, Klodas cut through the din and offered some simple thoughts on nutrition nirvana.

The obsession with weight loss hampers what can be a truly effective nutrition program, she told me in an email conversation, parts of which appear as part of our “Q&A” series.

“Expensive chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease are, by and large, food-borne illnesses,” wrote the good doctor. “Improving the nutritional status of all employees is the most important and impactful wellness modification that can be implemented within a workforce.”

Ponder that for a second: All things wellness springs from what we eat and drink. Maybe we need to think of our body as the kitchen and pantry rather than an entire temple.

Unlike exercise, Klodas added, which is completely on us to schedule and execute, employees have to eat at work. Multiple times, in fact, and every day (ever work with someone who says they forgot to eat? Yeah, that person is a real jewel as the day wears on).

And, adds Klodas, “To not use each meal as a health-promoting intervention is a huge missed opportunity.”

Concur. And as I’ve seen progressive wellness gurus advocate, it’s not one-size-fits-all anymore. What we eat needs to be tailored to our current state of health, genetics, our age and lifestyle choices.

“Not individualizing nutrition interventions would be much like simply instructing everyone to start jogging,” she said.

So, while nutrition programs still rely on a lot of cheerleading from management, employees will eat and drink at work. And that’s where employers can influence choices. If your employees like to bring cookies and cupcakes (hello, Thin Mints), take it upon yourself to put out a big bag of trail mix.

Call it a wellness plan that starts one dried apricot at a time.

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