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It’s Monday morning, you’re sitting at your desk and an email from Fred arrives saying it’s his birthday, he’s brought in cakes, they’re on the table by the photocopier, enjoy!  Next day, Jane brings some baklava back from Istanbul – help yourselves from the usual place. The next morning there are pastries left over from your meeting so you let colleagues know they’re up for grabs in meeting room 1. On Friday it’s the regular last Friday of the month Doughnut Day so everyone congregates at 4pm for a catch up over a doughnut.

This is a familiar pattern for many UK office workers according to new research into office cake culture1. The research surveyed nearly 1000 UK office workers and found that for the vast majority (86%) cake was available at least once or twice a week while for a quarter of respondents cake was available at least three or four times a week. 

Workplace cake culture is a controversial and emotive topic with opinions revolving around its contribution to obesity-related ill health, freedom of choice/nanny state-ism, and its ability to boost morale. The new research cuts through the confusion and helps clarify what’s going on. And yes, office cake may have a role to play in workplace morale.

But don’t rush out to buy celebratory cupcakes just yet… because we need to make sure office cake culture develops in a way that really does boost morale. Unfortunately there is potential for it to do the opposite.

First the bad news

Nearly a third (31%) said they thought office cake had contributed to weight gain, 59% said it made it harder to stick to a diet and 38% said it made it harder to eat healthily in the workplace.  Fundamentally, if cake is there people eat it – getting on for half (41%) said they often or always eat it if it’s available.

We can’t ignore the fact that cakes, pastries or chocolates mean extra sugar and calorie intake and, in a climate where 68% of the UK population is overweight or obese 2 this is not helpful to anyone’s health. One Tesco blueberry muffin (307 calories according to Tesco online grocery) twice a week for 48 weeks a year, is potentially an extra 29,000 calories, and sugary calories at that, which we know is linked to obesity and ill-health 3.  

We spend between a third and two third of our waking hours at work so if our workplace environment is healthy it can play an important role in keeping us healthy. But if our workplace makes it hard to eat healthily, we’re more likely to become unwell.  The new research shows that office cake culture changes employee eating habits, and therefore potentially undermines investment in health and wellbeing initiatives such as healthy options in the canteen and free exercise classes.

Now the good news
 
81% said office cake brings people together and 83% said it cheers everyone up.  In fact research has found that workgroups who eat together tend to have higher co-operation, performance and trust 4,5,6 and eating together is associated with enhanced connection between eating companions 7,8. Certainly, the value of building relationships and cross fertilising ideas through socialising between colleagues is well-established and we all recognise the pleasure and sense of connection we get from eating with friends and family.

As Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, points out, “[Food] feeds our friendships, bolsters our bonds and nourishes our sense of community – and those factors are vital to our happiness. Whether you look at the English word ‘companion’, the Spanish word ‘compañero’ or the French ‘copain’, they all originate from the Latin ‘com’ and ‘panis’ meaning ‘with whom one shares bread’.” 9

But, here’s a question.  If cakes are displayed for long periods for people to help themselves to during the day (as is the case in most workplaces) does that provide sociable morale-boosting effects and companionship? Or does it just promote mindless grazing as people wander past? 62% were distracted by cake to some extent and 68% found it hard to resist even if they were not hungry or had just eaten a meal.  

Some would say people should have better self-control but there’s robust evidence showing why this is not straightforward, but that’s for another blog. For the time being, it helps to understand that when we see something sweet and tasty (or see a picture or even think about it), our brain’s pleasure and reward systems kick in, urging us to seek out that reward. It’s a natural physical response that gets our mouth watering and our stomach juices flowing10,11.  And if we want to rely on willpower, some (not all) researchers maintain12 that is in limited supply so don’t beat yourself up if cakes are still there at tea time and you succumb to a muffin.

So how can we harness the beneficial glow of companionship while minimising the potential health risks? This question is answered by one of the most powerful findings from the new research. When asked what was the ideal frequency for office cake, 95% of respondents said once a week or less. I’ll say that again: once a week or less. Getting on for half (41%) said once a month would be ideal – much less frequent than what most people experience currently.

A great opportunity


This presents a fantastic opportunity to make cake special again; a treat to look forward to.  If 95% of the research respondents thought once a week or less was ideal, there’s a good chance that you and your colleagues feel similarly, whether you think cake is the work of the devil or a delicious way to break up the working day.

All that’s needed is a conversation among colleagues so you can work together create a cake plan that suits you (and your health) most of the time.

Importantly, there is no need for cake to be banned. The research does not suggest this is needed, as long as employees get a chance to discuss and understand what is going on. But what will help is if management instigates, encourages and supports the conversation. Research has found that when employees perceive that their management values employee health, employees tend to be healthier with lower BMI13,14. This encourages a virtuous circle of more healthy behaviours becoming the norm which in turn leads to healthier employees.

So, a happy workplace might involve cake. It should probably involve sociable get togethers. But cake doesn’t make a happy workplace if other factors aren’t right. You might find this diagram, from neuroendocrinologist and obesity expert Dr Robert Lustig, interesting. I’d have thought for a happy workplace, you’d need a range of factors leading to the scenario on the right, rather than a collection of people all independently experiencing the scenario on the left.  After all, it’s probably a happy workplace we’re after rather than a pleasurable workplace.

                                                                               Source:  www.businessinsider.com

 

Start the conversation!

  • A short, confidential survey might be useful to help people say what they really think and help the conversation get started.
  • Decide how often you want to have cake. What will you do if there are three birthdays in one week? What alternatives would work to thank or recognise someone?
  • On cake day, store the cakes out of sight (and therefore out of mind) until cake time, then no one has to rely on willpower to resist them.
  • Consider offering an alternative (fruit the most popular alternative to cake in the survey, followed by ‘cake, but less often’).
  • Enjoy the cake while socialising with colleagues.
  • Then put the cakes away, take them home, decide what to do with any left overs – but don’t leave them lying around.  


This way, office cake becomes a real occasion … not just an every day, run of the mill occurrence that potentially harms health.  Making cake an occasion gets people together to reap the benefits of eating together.  Most importantly, it helps keep the workplace healthier by making the healthy choice the easy choice.

So whether you’re an employee or employer, start a conversation.  What have you got to lose? (Other than the weight, obviously!)

 

References

  1. Walker, L. (2018). It’s time to rethink office cake. louwalker.com
  2. Health Survey for England. (2016). Health Survey for England, 2015.
  3. Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition. (2015). Carbohydrates and Health.
  4. Kniffin, K., Wansink, B., Devine, C. & Sobal, J. (2015). Eating together at the firehouse: How workplace commensality relates to the performance of firefighters. Human Performance, 28(4).
  5. Allen-Arave, W., Gurven, M., & Hill, K. (2008). Reciprocal altruism, rather than kin selections, maintains nepotistic food transfers on an Ache reservation. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29(5)
  6. Mameli, M. (2013). Meat made us moral: a hypothesis on the nature and evolution of moral judgement. Biology & Philosophy, 28(6)
  7. Alley, T. (2012). Contaminated and uncontaminated feeding influence perceived intimacy in mixed-sex dyads. Appetite, 58(3)
  8. Kniffin, K., & Wansink, B. (2012). It’s not just lunch: Extra-pair commensality can trigger sexual jealousy. PLoS One, 7(7)
  9. Wiking, M. (2017). The Little Book of Lykke. The Danish search for the world’s happiest people. Pub: Penguin Random House, UK
  10. Ferriday, D & Brunstrom, J. (2011). ‘I just can’t help myself’: Effects of food-cue exposure in overweight and lean individuals. International Journal of Obesity, 35(1)
  11. Ramaekers, M., Boesveldt, S., Lakemond, C., van Boekel, M. & Luning, P. (2014). Odors: Appetizing or satiating? Development of appetite during odor exposure over time. International Journal of Obesity, 38(5)
  12. Hagger, M. S., Wood, C., Stiff, C., & Chatzisarantis, N. L. D. (2010). Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136(4)
  13. Tabak, R., Hipp, J. A., Marx, C., & Brownson, R. (2015). Workplace social and organizational environments and healthy-weight behaviors. PLoS One, 10(4).
  14. Lemon, S. et al. (2010). Step Ahead: A worksite obesity prevention trial among hospital employees. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 38(1).

 

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Blog

 

I was very excited when the email arrived saying my office cake research had been short-listed for an Inspiring Wellbeing Award. It’s obviously nice that one’s own work has been recognised, but even better when it’s recognised as being potentially useful.  

Inspiring Wellbeing Awards are run in conjunction with the annual Wellbeing Symposium which focuses on wellbeing at work, in the community and for individuals.

The award was presented by Christine Hancock, director of C3 Collaborating for Health, a London-based global charity that addresses risk factors in non-communicable disease.

Said Christine, “C3 was delighted to be asked to help judge the Inspiring Wellbeing Awards. To see Lou’s important research on office cake consumption among the submissions was fantastic. We were so pleased to recommend her for an award and happy to see that colleagues agreed and her research was ‘Highly Commended’ by the panel of judges.” 



Caption: (L-R), Christine Hancock, Lou Walker.

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Blog

 

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.
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Blog, Press releases
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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