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The diet of work

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Is it possible to reform our workplace eating habits?

Given up on your New Year’s Diet yet? I wouldn’t blame you. In fact, I’d almost encourage it.

I never see the logic in them. It shows how far we have come from the natural order of things. Spring, the real new year, is the time to eat salad. It’s counter-intuitive to stock the store for winter and then throw it all out in a self-hating rage (determining to live starch, carbohydrate, and fat free) just as the temperature plummets.

Sure enough, though, new diets and fitness regimes have been everywhere, as usual, this January. The dentists have been out, lamenting the rise of office cake. The techies have been out, promoting the health benefits of workplace wearables that, among other things, can monitor your physical activity.

One could forgive employers for being between a rock bun and a hard pace on this one.

Should the workplace be a haven of comfort food, a repository of red-labelled treats, or should, in the spirit of both employee well-being and productivity, a lean-cuisine/take-the-stairs/vitamin-enriched culture be the order of the day?

There’s no question, work is certainly responsible for a lot of our disordered eating. We disrupt our natural rhythms. We fill up on coffee. We’re forced to eat on trains, in planes, in our cars, outside service stations, in staff canteens where stodge solidifies and lettuce leaves wilt. We grab a sandwich to eat at our desks. We get home late, fill up on wine and sling in a pizza. 

And that’s just the logistical challenges. What of the emotional ones (it’s impossible not to link food with emotion)? People turn to comfort food when, guess what, they need comforting. Sugar when they need energy, or an artificial happy. The workplace that craves sweet things might need other things – better management, better motivation, more calm.

I learned the importance of food at work when I was a producer working with crews out in all weathers. The more I kept the bacon butties and chocolate bars and endless cups of tea and coffee flowing, the happier everyone would be. It took me a number of edgier shoots to realise this (being one of those strange creatures who can go for very long periods of time without eating and, when busy, can easily forget to eat at all).

Once I’d realised a crew stands around a lot on its stomach (as well as lugs an awful lot of very heavy equipment about, to be fair), I knew the importance of gauging the appetites of others over my own. But this was really physical work, often outside or in unheated studio spaces (breathlessly cold places beyond the glare of the lights), so we burned off the junk food in no time.

Not so easy to do in an office. And, whether it’s a junk or fruit-filled office, one thing is for sure: people are locusts. Whatever is there will go in less time that you ever imagined. This I have observed wherever I’ve worked (slow with my appetites, the number of times I’ve finally decided I do fancy a slice of that cake or one of those donuts, only to find their smeared remains left in a cardboard box).

With this knowledge, I would advise any employer operating in a sedentary environment to only supply virtuous goods. If people want to bring in their junk, so be it – that’s their right and individual decision – but if the employer provides, for example, a lot of fruit, it will be eaten. If they supply a vending machine full of chocolate bars, so will that.

As for biting off all those other tricky aspects of the relationship between the workplace and disordered eating, well, it’d probably be better to talk about those over a very long lunch.

Matthew Sinclair

By Matthew Sinclair

Matthew is a writer and consultant, Play at Work

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