This blog was first published by the Scottish Cancer Prevention Network on 12 May 2019.
Ask people what they think about workplace cake and you discover it’s a contentious issue. My research surveyed nearly 1000 UK office workers and found that office cake changed people’s eating behaviour and made workplaces less healthy (1-3). But while 31% of respondents reported it led to weight gain and 37% said it made it hard to eat healthily at work, 81% said it brings people together and 83% said it cheers people up. So how do we make sense of these opposing ideas? Is there a way to harness the morale-boosting capabilities while minimising the health consequences? I think so. But we need to think differently.
‘Commensality’ is the technical term for groups of people eating together and sharing food. It’s as old as civilisation and could even be the basis of society itself. When our ancestors lived in caves and hunted mammoths, successful hunters celebrated and shared the food with the rest of their community (4). Today, research shows we associate food-sharing with cooperation, trust and a close connection between eating companions (5-8).
In his book “The Little Book of Lykke” (‘lykke’ is Danish for happiness) Meik Wiking says, “[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’.”
In the workplace, researchers have found that work colleagues who eat together tend to co-operate more and perform better (9). Co-operation, trust, performance: these all contribute to a healthy, productive workplace (10).
But (and I’m afraid it’s a big but), three quarters of the office cake research respondents said cake was displayed on a desk for people to help themselves to during the day (1-3). Does this provide commensality benefits? No, because there’s no ‘together’ or ‘sharing’. This makes office cake a health risk, because it makes it easy for people will eat excess, sugary food even when they’re not hungry (something humans are programmed to do).
So ‘together’ and ‘sharing’ are key to commensality, not the food.
In Sweden, the concept of ‘fika’ – taking a break to socialise and connect with friends and colleagues, is an important part of the culture and embedded in many workplaces. The focus is on the socialising, not the food – you can’t ‘fika’ alone at your desk. The tradition of ‘tea and toast’ in the British Army developed in the first world war to boost morale and continues today as a way for mixed ranks to connect and sort out problems informally. A serving Army captain recently told me that often there’s no tea and no toast but ’T&T’ continues as a valued tradition.
Given the opportunity, I bet people would come up with ways to eat with colleagues to enjoy the benefits without the sugar. Picnic lunch, with everyone contributing something for people to share? Walking to the pub together once a month for lunch, then walking back? A monthly breakfast?
None of this is as easy as popping to the supermarket to buy some doughnuts and you couldn’t do it every day. But another key finding from the research was that 95% of respondents thought the ideal frequency for office cake was once a week or less. Workplaces could combine this knowledge with the concept of commensality to make cake special again – something for people to look forward to once a week, once a month or whatever they feel is right. That would reduce the health risk while boosting the social benefits. Sounds like a win win …
1. Walker L, Flannery O. Office cake culture: an exploration of its characteristics and associated behaviours and attitudes among UK office workers and implications for workplace health. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 2019.
2. Walker L. It’s time to rethink office cake. Office cake consumption in the UK: an exploration of its characteristics and associated attitudes among office workers. University of Chester; 2018.
3. Walker L. Office cake consumption in the UK: an exploration of its characteristics and associated attitudes among office workers [MSc]: University of Chester; 2017.
4. Jones M. Feast: Why humans share food. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2008.
5. Allen-Arave W, Gurven M, Hill K. Reciprocal altruism, rather than kin selection, maintains nepotistic food transfers on an Ache reservation. Evol Hum Behav. 2008;29(5):305-18.
6. Mameli M. Meat made us moral: a hypothesis on the nature and evolution of moral judgment. Biol Philos. 2013;28(6):903-31.
7. Alley TR. Contaminated and uncontaminated feeding influence perceived intimacy in mixed-sex dyads. Appetite. 2012;58(3):1041-5.
8. Kniffin KM, Wansink B. It’s not just lunch: extra-pair commensality can trigger sexual jealousy. PLoS One. 2012;7(7):e40445.
9. Kniffin KM, Wansink B, Devine CM, Sobal J. Eating Together at the Firehouse: How Workplace Commensality Relates to the Performance of Firefighters. Hum Perform. 2015;28(4):281-306.
10. Black C. Working for a healthier tomorrow. London: TSO; 2008.