New research finds office workers don’t want as much cake in the workplace
Sticking to healthy New Year resolutions could be made easier for UK office workers, with new research finding they want cake at work less often than it is currently available.
Almost all (95%) of the 940 respondents in an online survey said the ideal frequency for office cake was once a week or less; 41% said once a month would be ideal. This is less frequent than the current availability of at least once a week for the majority (86%) of respondents.
‘Office cake culture’ refers to the popular phenomenon where work colleagues and managers provide cake and other sweet treats for colleagues to share.
Conducted by Lou Walker as part of her MSc in Obesity & Weight Management at the University of Chester, the survey asked respondents about their own office cake habits and attitudes, and their opinions on office cake in general. It is believed to be the first academic study to explore office cake culture.
Respondents identified negative consequences of office cake 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). Despite this, a majority of respondents said office cake was ‘a good thing’ (61%), brought people together (81%) and cheered everyone up (83%).
The research report, It’s time to rethink office cake, concludes office cake culture influences employee eating habits and therefore has implications for workplace health and wellbeing and public health. It also suggests the new data gives organisations a feasible opportunity to rethink office cake culture to achieve a healthier, more productive balance between its social benefits and health risks.
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.
Researcher Lou Walker said: “I hope this new evidence will prompt people to start a conversation about the cake culture in their own workplaces. If we now know that work colleagues enjoy getting together for cake but they 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 several benefits for both employers and employees. Creating a culture of health in the workplace also has implications for public health.”
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. They do not even remove unhealthy options. Instead they make the 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?
Notes to editors
- For further information please contact:
Lou Walker on 07764 189516 or firstname.lastname@example.org
- Click here to access the It’s time to rethink office cake
- 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
Every organisation in the UK can do something (at no cost) to rethink their cake culture. This could have an impact on the UK’s health and consequently the NHS. Oh – and it would probably favourably impact their bottom line, too – but that’s also another blog.
1. People don’t want office cake as often as it’s currently available. In the research, 95% said the ideal frequency for office cake was once a week or less. 41% said once a month was enough. (People do like that cake culture provides a sociable get together, however. But surely we could find other ways to do that that does not involve unhealthy food?!)
2. According to the World Health Organisation, we spend two thirds of our waking hours at work. If the workplace was somewhere it was easy to make healthy choices (fewer opportunities to eat extra sugar and calories for example) it would reduce exposure to tempting unhealthy food. The workplace could become a sanctuary from an environment that contrives to make us fat and ill.
3. In the UK, the workplace gives access to 75% of the population. That’s an opportunity to improve health across the UK’s socio-economic groups, educational levels, industrial sectors, age groups and ethnicities.
So – let’s start a conversation about office cake in Britain’s workplaces. Can employers ask employees how often they actually want cake? If the office cake survey results are representative the whole of the UK, reducing the amount of office cake to improve health will be straightforward.
And it might make office cake a treat again. And British business, productivity and the NHS might all benefit.
But also on the news that day was a story about the NHS and lack of funding for social care. And in a way this, sadly, was not really news because stories about lack of funding, service cuts and impending collapse of our health and social care system occur so regularly. This is why I’m making a fuss about office cake. Because the UK’s office cake culture is part of a complex systemic behavioural problem that’s causing ill-health and pulling the NHS down.
We don’t have to veto office cake
BUT the good news is I think we can do something about this by rethinking workplace cake culture – and the other good news is that, no I’m not advocating banning office cake. We don’t need to because 95% of the 1000 people who took part in my recent research into office cake culture said they only wanted office cake once a week or less. 41% said once a month would be enough. So reducing office cake occasions to the levels that people seem to want would be a significant reduction.
Let me explain the link that I think exists between office cake culture and the NHS struggles.
As long as you are healthy, a slice of cake every now and again won’t hurt. Left to its own devices, your brilliant body will keep blood glucose steady and automatically adjust food intake and physical activity over the next few hours and days to keep body weight constant. The odd sugary, calorific splurge is deal-able with. But, be honest – most of us don’t have the odd splurge. As far as our bodies are concerned, the modern diet – full of processed foods and regular snacking – effectively means we splurge several times a day. And whatever the definition of ‘a splurge’, the fact that two thirds of the UK population are overweight or obese suggests we’re overdoing the splurging. With rising obesity comes increased type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease and other obesity-related illnesses – including thirteen cancers according to the World Cancer Research Fund. The splurges are coming too often for bodies to automatically adjust and weight gain and other metabolic illnesses are the result.
You may be one of the remaining third of our population that manages to stay healthy with a healthy weight for your height, but you are in a fortunate minority that is shrinking year on year.
Over-indulgence is a normal human response in an environment that encourages us to over-indulge
The ingredients in and our associations with cake and sweet, processed foods make it very easy to over-indulge. Evidence backs this up: cake and sweet, baked goods are the primary contributors to snack food. Obviously, food manufacturers design their products to be delicious and moreish to encourage us to eat more of them. This is the perfectly legal market economy (but don’t forget that food and drink companies exist to make profits, not protect your health, whatever their marketing says). Cake and sweet things are particularly delicious and moreish although of course for some it’s crisps or samosas.
Even the sight, smell or thought of food we like makes us feel hungry and want to eat. Just think about your favourite foods or even just the packaging and marketing of your favourite foods… is your mouth watering yet? Our brains recognise something we’ve eaten before that tasted delicious and gave us pleasure and the pleasure and reward centres in our brains respond by making us want to recreate that pleasure by eating it again. So wanting to eat a cake or doughnut is a natural human response to delicious food that we just KNOW will hit the spot and give us a dopamine hit.
So when there’s a spread of cakes, tins of Quality Street or tubs of Haribo on display in the office, is it surprising that people eat it? We’re not off the hook when we walk down the high street or the through the train station where every other retail outlet is flaunting fabulous foodie treats. And when we get home TV programmes and adverts bombard us with reminders that something delicious is never far from our tingling taste buds. We’re persuaded that snacking and indulging in a quick energy hit is healthy and, worryingly, normal. Even more worryingly, I get regular reports of weekly cake rotas at schools and kids’ sports clubs – and this is nothing to do with fundraising; it’s just that it seems we cannot be more than 30 mins from our next cake fix.
Some respondents to the office cake research said cake and confectionery are available so often, they are not a treat any more. It’s no longer an indulgence to be anticipated and savoured. It’s something that happens several times a day, every day for so many people. And it’s making us increasingly overweight and unwell. And the dear NHS is struggling.
So. While politicians, food and drink companies, economists, dieticians, doctors and scientists debate the reasons and solutions for our obesity and NHS crises, it’s down to us to try to stop over eating and develop healthier lifestyles. How to lose weight was apparently the fourth most popular search in 2017 and the continuing growth of the health and weight loss sector indicates it’s what many people desperately want to achieve.
We can start by rethinking office cake.