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New research finds office cake culture influences employee eating habits so could impact workplace health promotion programme efficacy

New research has found office cake culture influences employee eating behaviour and could therefore undermine the effectiveness of workplace health promotion programmes. 

However, 95% of the 940 respondents said the ideal frequency for office cake was once a week, which is less than it is currently available. Therefore there is a mandate for office cake consumption to be reduced.

‘Office cake culture’ refers to the popular phenomenon where work colleagues and managers provide cake and other sweet treats for colleagues to share.

The research was conducted by leadership development consultant Lou Walker as part of an MSc in Obesity & Weight Management at the University of Chester.  UK office workers were surveyed about their own office cake habits and attitudes, and their opinions on office cake in general. Believed to be the first academic study to explore office cake culture, the research is summarised in a report, It’s time to rethink office cake.

As well as providing extra sugar and calories which typically were not compensated for, the research found cake consumption was promoted by cake’s accessibility and availability, and the influence of work colleagues.  These factors could counteract measures taken by employers to enhance employees’ physical and emotional health.

Respondents identified negative consequences of office cake culture such as weight gain (31% of respondents), difficulty eating healthily at work (38% of respondents) and difficulty sticking to a weight loss diet (59% of respondents).  People reported eating office cake “if it’s there” and consumption was also influenced by work colleagues.  Almost all respondents (92%) reported they ate office cake at least sometimes if it was available, with 41% saying they often or always ate it if it was available.  Over a third (36%) said they never refused office cake if it was offered to them. Almost a quarter (23%) often or always found it hard to refuse cake if others were eating it and over half (52%) said they were persuaded to change their minds at least sometimes if they had initially refused it. Over a quarter (28%) said they often or always found cake hard to resist even if they were not hungry or had just eaten a meal.

A majority of respondents said office cake was ‘a good thing’ (61%), brought people together (81%) and cheered everyone up (83%).  Despite this, almost all (95%) respondents said the ideal frequency for office cake was once a week or less; 41% said once a month. This is less frequent than the current availability of at least once a week for the majority (86%) of respondents.   

Researcher Lou Walker said: “I hope this new evidence provides enough of an opportunity to start a conversation about cake culture in as many workplaces as possible. If we now know that work colleagues enjoy getting together for cake but think once a week or once a month is enough, it will be easier for them to encourage each other to keep cake for weekly or monthly occasions. This would make office cake a treat again and reduce sugar consumption without anyone feeling deprived.

“Rethinking office cake culture could contribute to a culture of health in the workplace which research shows has benefits for both employers and employees.  Creating a culture of health in the workplace also has implications for public health.”

Lou Walker’s website, www.louwalker.com, provides free access to a short version of the research questionnaire to allow workgroups to explore their own cake culture. The resulting data could provide the basis for a conversation on rethinking office cake.

The It’s time to rethink office cake report makes practical recommendations.  These focus on small changes to the workplace environment following the principles of nudge theory. Using colleague collaboration rather than policy decisions from management, the changes do not rely on individuals’ willpower to resist cake. Instead they aim to make healthier options the easy options.  For example:

·         Encourage work groups to discuss how often they actually want office cake. It may not be as often as it is currently available.

·         Make cake special again. Propose that work groups have a weekly ‘cake day’ (or less often if they prefer). Birthdays and special occasions could all be celebrated on that day.

·         Encourage a conversation about whether edible treats from holidays and business trips abroad could also be saved for ‘cake day’.

·         Stop having cakes openly displayed all day – research shows this encourages people to eat whether or not they are hungry. Instead, agree a ‘cake time’. Until cake time, store cakes out of sight, ideally in opaque containers in a cupboard. This would prevent mindless grazing and enhance the benefits of coming together for a sociable break at the agreed day and time.

·         Use the out of sight, out of mind approach to workplace kitchens. Keep surfaces clear of unhealthy food. Make healthy alternatives more prominent, convenient and accessible.

·         Encourage cake providers to offer a healthier alternative as well as cake. Depending on the preferences of the people involved, this could be something savoury, fruit, nuts or vegetables and dips. In the survey, 52% of respondents said fruit would be a good alternative.

·         To get the social benefits of eating and talking together, suggest a team picnic lunch. This way the food is instead of, rather than as well as, a meal.

·         Over half the survey respondents thought meeting refreshments in their workplace did not offer enough healthy options. Consult employees (and clients) on healthier alternatives. Are food refreshments always needed?

According to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), the UK has the highest obesity rates in Western Europe, with over two thirds of the population either overweight or obese. Obesity is one of the most common workplace health problems and is strongly linked to sickness absence. Workers spend two thirds of their waking hours at work so the workplace provides an important opportunity to improve health across socioeconomic groups, ages, ethnicities, education levels, geographies and industrial sectors.

 

Ends

Notes to editors

·         For further information please contact:
Lou Walker on 07764 189516 or lou@louwalker.com

·         Click here to access the It’s time to rethink office cake report.

·         A short version of the survey questionnaire and access to a version that can be shared by workgroups can be found at www.louwalker.com

·         The research study was approved by the University of Chester Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Life Sciences Research Ethics Committee, reference 1241/17/LW/CSN

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