Good Food at Work

Cake Culture… And My Next Best Thing for Employee Wellbeing

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A couple of years ago, I wrote that partnering with local farmers — via community-supported agriculture — could be the best wellness thing an employer can do. Based on the experience of at least one employer with 10,000+ office workers nationwide, I may have found my next best thing. 

A survey completed by employees at this firm showed “healthier food at meetings, in cafeterias, and in vending machines” to be the second most requested wellness offering (after gym membership discounts). And 30% of employees who reported having unhealthy eating habits said they were actively engaged in trying to improve them. Some employees want to eat healthier.

The employer had, years ago, dug into a bag of age-old merchandising tricks that had become trendy when some bestselling author dubbed them “behavioral economics”: pricing healthier food more attractively than unhealthy food and making the healthiest choices the easiest choice.

The behavioral economics nudges had some success, but there was another obstacle afoot for employees who wanted to make healthier food choices…

Eating healthy is not always easy for consumers during the work day, with a little over half finding it only “somewhat” to “not at all” easy…Most attempt to eat healthy, but encounter challenges along the way. Some backslide the rest of the day and continue to indulge and eat less healthy as a part of a more emotional cycle of guilt and reward. 

— Sodexo 2015 Workplace Food Insights

Free food is everywhere in offices and call centers. Sometimes it’s provided by employers, like not-so-refreshing refreshments served at long meetings and special events, or sweet treats used to reward workers the way you might use Milk Bones to reward a paper-trained labradoodle. 

But much of it is introduced and shared by co-workers. I’ve previously described workplaces flooded with cakes, candy, and other treats, and cited studies that coined the terms “food altars” (where leftovers and treats are reliably displayed) and “cake culture.”

The challenge this employer faced was how to meet the needs of employees seeking healthier choices and a healthier environment — without taking on the role of “food police.”

A pulse poll found that, when co-workers brought in treats, 23% of this company’s employees ignore them because they don’t fit into the respondents’ eating style, diet, or health concern; 9% sample some to be polite but “wish it wasn’t there”; 8% tend to overindulge and “feel gross after.”

Did I mention that some employees want to eat healthier?

When asked what type of foods they are most likely to bring to an office potluck, 32% of respondents from a separate poll of the same employees said they’d contribute an indulgent dessert; 15% said they’d bring “pizza and wings, or something like that”; only 16% said they’d bring a healthy dish; and 12% said it depended on their co-workers’ dietary concerns.

Not much can be concluded from informal poll data, but at first it may seem like there’s a reasonable match between employees that bring treats and those who consume treats. That’s not a problem if workers are only bringing in food, say, once every week or two. 

But “cake culture” isn’t about what happens once every week or two. It’s about what happens every day. That’s what makes it cake culture… and not just…you know…cake.

If the majority want to have their next slice of cake within arms’ reach all day every day.…what about those who don’t?

Remember that “choice” thing? Does it only apply to those who fall into a narrow majority?

Some will argue, “Who cares?! It’s a matter of personal will. Employees who don’t want unhealthy food don’t have to eat it!”

Did I say “some will argue”? Nix that. Most will. But this stance reflects an unfounded belief in willpower, which has little to do with behavior (or obesity, in case you’re interested), a lesson even many wellness professionals have not yet learned. 

Research has shown that people who demonstrate what might appear to be a high level of willpower generally are not exercising willpower at all, but in fact craft their environments in a way that supports specific behaviors. If anything, some researchers have said, naive faith in willpower reduces your chance of adopting a healthy behavior.

This employer endeavored to support the normalization of healthy food, so that the needs of employees seeking healthier choices, even if they weren’t a majority, were not drowned in a sea of cake, candy, cookies, pizza, and chips.

In an upcoming post, we’ll see how this employer leveraged a feel-good crowdsourced tactic to support employees when their own workplace food culture sometimes failed to do so.



Author: Bob Merberg