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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.



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


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.

A few weeks ago, on Saturday 18th November 2017, the BBC news was talking about people losing Universal Credit payments over Christmas because they’re paid weekly, a Government consultation on a levy on plastic food packaging and the non-coup in Zimbabwe. They were all issues that affect lives and the future of the planet – ‘proper’ issues that we should all be concerned about. Nothing as frivolous as whether or not people eat cake at work.

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.