When I was planning my office cake research, cake-related discussions with friends and colleagues often led to the same full and frank discussion.
Some argued that if you eat too much cake or other snacks (at work or elsewhere), you risk weight gain. This carries health risks for individuals and productivity-related consequences for employers. The counter-argument was that office cake provides a valuable chance for colleagues to take a break to catch up with colleagues and cross-fertilise ideas. Obviously, I had no idea what the research would tell us.
Well, the results suggest there’s merit in both positions and, more importantly, both provide insights that could help improve workplace health and wellbeing, physical and mental.
The research surveyed almost 1000 UK office workers about their attitudes, habits and opinions around workplace cake culture. Cake was available to most respondents (86%) at least ‘once or twice a week’. 31% said office cake had contributed to weight gain, 38% said it made it harder to eat healthily in the workplace and 59% said it made it harder to stick to a weight loss diet. Round one to the ‘office cake is bad’ camp.
But. 61% thought office cake was a good thing, 81% said it brings people together and 83% said it cheers people up. Round two to the ‘office cake is good’ camp.
So how often did the respondents think would be ideal for office cake? This is the ‘wow!’ piece of data that could make some real difference to workplace health. Almost all respondents (95%) said the ideal frequency for office cake was once a week or less. 41% said once a month.
Make workplace cake special again
So, the evidence is telling us that workplace cake affects many people’s efforts to eat healthily at work and control their weight, yet it also provides a popular way to boost morale and build relationships. But however they felt about workplace cake, almost all respondents considered cake once a week or less to be often enough.
Add all this together and what have we got?
The evidence suggests we could reduce workplace health risk and enhance social benefits while having office cake just once a week. And it seems this would be acceptable to the vast majority of employees.
To make this work we’d need small changes to the way office cake happens at most workplaces. For example, displaying cakes all day on a table in the main working area (as happens for nearly three quarters of respondents) encourages mindless grazing and doesn’t provide the social benefits people enjoy. Instead, choose a day and time for cake every week/month/whatever people agree. Until cake time, keep the cakes out of sight (and out of mind) in opaque cake tins, in cupboards. When cake o’clock has passed, pack the cakes away. This would make cake special again, a treat to look forward to and encourage social interaction. More ideas can be found in the research report It’s time to rethink office cake.
Employers can have confidence
This research investigated the opinions of office workers so might not translate to other working environments. Even so, I hope it gives organisations the confidence to at least start a conversation among colleagues so they can explore their own cake culture. There is a strong chance they will realise they are all in the “office cake is great, but once a week is enough” camp. Then they might feel able to discuss ways to make this happen. Supportive management can encourage and endorse but won’t need to regulate.
Develop a culture of health in the workplace
In 2013, the World Health Organisation calculated we spend two thirds of our waking hours at work. So a healthy working environment makes a significant contribution to overall public health. And starting a conversation about office cake culture is a giant step in a healthier direction.
Find out more about the research, how to start a conversation and what small changes can help organisations rethink office cake culture harmoniously at www.louwalker.com.
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.
Notes to editors
· For further information please contact:
Lou Walker on 07764 189516 or email@example.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