Step Away from the Free Snacks, CDC Warns

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek July 3, 2018
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Homemade chocolate chip cookies, anyone? How about a glazed doughnut the size of a dinner plate? Care for some bagels leftover from the breakfast meeting?

Not many can resist the siren call of free workplace goodies. In fact, nearly one-fourth of employed adults consume an average of 1,277 calories per week from the food and drink they nosh on at work, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Free food accounted for 71 percent of all calories acquired at work, researchers found using data from a national U.S. Department of Agriculture food acquisition and purchasing survey.

Researchers analyzed food and beverages employees purchased at work from vending machines or cafeterias or obtained for free in common areas, at meetings or at worksite social events. The food tended to be high in solid fats and added sugars—and empty calories

Opting for an apple over a brownie can be difficult. Food at office celebrations and snacks brought in by colleagues are among the biggest obstacles to meeting health and wellness goals, according to an OfficeTeam survey of more than 1,000 U.S. workers and 300 HR managers. Forty-four percent of respondents told OfficeTeam that they eat healthier when they work from home.

So what's an employer interested in promoting wellness to do?

Geonerco Management in Seattle doesn't plan to quit providing the small variety of snacks, soda and water it offers to employees during the workday.

"The goodwill generated" from the free food and drink "is more important than relying on government studies in an attempt to regulate or provide 'Big Brother oversight' to employee behavior," said Greg Szymanski, SHRM-SCP, director of HR at the real estate development and home-construction management company.

"Would an employer tell or strongly encourage their employees where to go out to lunch or what to eat for lunch?" he reasoned.

MFG Jobs, a manufacturing job board, requests its vending machines operator to include healthier options such as dried fruit, nuts and trail mix along with the less-healthful choices it already provides, said Robin Schwartz, an HR generalist for the company in Maryland.

Making healthy choices is ultimately up to the employee, she noted.

"When staff lunches are served or meetings are being catered, we try to provide options that will allow employees to make healthy choices. For example, if there is a cake for dessert, there is also a bowl of fresh fruit."

[SHRM members-only how-to guide: How to Establish and Design a Wellness Program]

Wellness Initiatives 

The CDC's study of 5,222 employees across the U.S. found that the foods people get at work tend to contain high amounts of sodium and refined grains and little whole grains and fruit. Some employers are taking innovative steps to support employee health and wellness, HR managers told OfficeTeam, including: 

  • Offering onsite personal trainers.
  • Offering onsite exercise, meditation, yoga and healthy-cooking classes.
  • Giving workers fitness-tracking devices.
  • Having a nurse's department in the office.  
"While companies cannot monitor employees' food intake, they can make sure they are supporting their health and wellness goals by offering healthy options in the cafeteria and vending machines," said Brandi Britton, district president for OfficeTeam.

"Office celebrations typically come with sugary treats," she noted in an e-mail to SHRM Online, "but employers can strike a balance by offering health and wellness services through corporate programs such as group fitness activities, office sports leagues or bike clubs. Other innovative examples companies are … offering standing or treadmill desks, gym memberships and diet counseling."

Maugel Architects, a commercial design firm in Harvard, Mass., brings in outside presenters twice a month to its Lunch and Learn training programs. Presenters typically provide lunch.

"We now ask presenters to order food from a list of vetted caterers or food-service providers that serve healthier, clean food," said John Lawlor, chief operating officer. Presenters typically provide lunch that consists of fresh mixed greens, kale and vegetable salads, fruit salads, wheat and spinach wraps, antibiotic-free meats, and water and seltzer—no soda.

"We are committed to making our employees their 'best self' and creating a great place to work," he said in an e-mail. "To deliver on 'best self' and a great place to work, we look at what we can influence or control in the work environment. Food is one of those areas."

Noted Britton, "Though employers don't have control over what employees bring in to share with the office, the encouragement of healthy habits could make a difference. It's ultimately up to employees to exercise self-control and look past available sugary treats."





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