Providing food at work: Perk for the staff or perk for the business?

Life can be hard to stomach.

We are in “tough economic times”. The papers are filled with stories of unemployment, mass job losses and graduates unable to find work. If the media are to be believed we are all to keep our heads down, our behinds firmly attached to any office chair they can get and to immediately place an order of gruel from Amazon’s grocery service.

Hard times they may be, but the best personnel remain picky. Particularly in the City, job adverts will tempt the top hires in with good salaries, health and dental insurance, gym memberships and often a staff canteen or stocked kitchen.

Sounds a good place to work right? Who wouldn’t want to arrive to work to fresh croissants and jams? Be able to commandeer coffees with cookies and fruits throughout the day and perhaps enjoy a toasted bagel and a cup of tea at 3pm. All at the expense of your workplace of course.

Tempting it might be. However this little gift of a full stomach may be worth far more to the business than it is to doughnut-boy Joe from Sales. And not just in the form of a tax break.

Start at the beginning

Breakfast, the most important meal of the day? It’s a cliché, yes. But it isn’t an old wives tale concocted by the Kellogg’s knitting nanas. Laying on a breakfast for your staff won’t make them cleverer. Orange juice and toast don’t produce high IQs. However they do produce fuel for the brain.

The brain uses glucose as its preferred snack. Humans are not the most energy efficient of beasts and our large, extremely well developed brains use about 20% of our energy when we are at rest. However it cannot store much. Without glucose replacement the brain will be depleted of glucose in less than 15 minutes. This doesn’t mean that you place a box of sugar lumps on everybody’s desks but after a long period of fast a boost is worthwhile.
The effect of giving glucose to the brain in the form of breakfast has been found to enhance memory and increase concentration. What breakfast in particular seems to do is affect tasks that require the retention of new information. It also improves visuospatial memory.

You don’t have to go this far, but providing breakfast will lift the mood of your staff.

As a bonus your staff will be more positive. An upturn in mood is an effect commonly reported after eating breakfast. With more alertness and more interest in tasks. The macronutrient intake may cause this upturn in mood by affecting the synthesis of monoamine neurotransmitters. Breakfast provides the building blocks for the synthesis.

You have provided breakfast. But why bother to make snacks available for the rest of the day?

Whereas adults felt more positive after the morning meal, those who had eaten a larger breakfast felt their mood drop later in the morning. However this downturn can be reversed by eating a snack. In fact even when there are no physiological indications of tiredness subjects would report lower energy levels and motivation when having missed a meal.

Availability of snack foods and a drinks fridge or tea and coffee when consumed at regular intervals during the day are associated with better cognition and less glucose variability. You don’t want hypoglycemic staff, putting off lunch or unable to leave the office to buy food when trying to meet a deadline. Symptoms of hypoglycemia include fatigue, headache, drowsiness, inability to concentrate, loss of memory and confusion. Staff eating irregularly will be tired and distracted. Hardly optimum employee material.

There may also be an advantage to an aging workforce. Adequate workplace nutrition was found to enhance cognitive function of a group of 50-59 year old employees to the level of a younger group of 34-49 year olds both in numerical improvement and complex reaction time tests.

Whilst outside the office the explosion of popular lunch spot restaurants like Pod and Pret A Manger mean that staff are munching on organic whole-foods and sushi for lunch, inside the office you might want to think about providing nuts as munchies instead of muffins. Adults with poor glucose tolerance actually performed better at memory tasks when their blood glucose was lower. A carbohydrate-based snack caused a drop in declarative memory. In this case a protein based snack would be preferable for boosting performance.

A working lunch

Providing a staff canteen means that you can influence what your work force eat.

Without taking the drastic (and frankly quite frightening step) of bringing in Jamie Oliver for a consultation, providing a cooked meal with some vegetables and maybe the odd piece of fish is going to improve the diet of your employees. Provide a bowl of fruit and increase the vitamin intake of your staff. Having lunch at a work canteen, providing healthy food items are on offer has been shown to promote good food habits.

After all, you reap what you sow. What you choose to provide to your staff is going to influence their long term health. A healthy workforce will take less time off with chronic health issues. Thousands of man days a year are lost to people taking time off with long term health issues, stress and anxiety. You can’t prevent all of these but having a well nutritioned workforce will go some way to help.

A word of warning here. Keep it clean. There is no better and quicker way to take out all your staff than allowing an outbreak of Salmonella in the work kitchen.

What about the stimulants?

There is a gaping omission from this blog post and this is on purpose. What are the advantages of providing your staff with a nice supply of caffeine? Coffee, tea or even Red Bull in the drinks fridge. Can we medicate our staff into performing better?

This will be the topic of my next post. What actually happens to our brains and bodies when we drink that cup of Joe?

3 thoughts on “Providing food at work: Perk for the staff or perk for the business?”

  1. Tammy – another fantastic blog post and something a little different, yet very useful, for a tech blog.
    One benefit of a company providing food and a place to eat is that it encourages interaction. All too often I’ve seen people eating at their desks and I’m really bad at that. By providing a nice environment for people to eat improves the chances of them chatting, hopefully getting on and helps spread knowledge – if people are in work it’s likely they’ll talk a bit about work and find out information they wouldn’t have otherwise. This is definitely one of the reasons that you hear about so many tech companies having “break out rooms”.
    I’d also be interested in finding other ways to keep alert and motivated. What benefits can music have? I’ve been to a client’s office a few times recently and they always have music on. However, most other places I’ve worked have definitely been against it. This might be the type of thing you could shed some light on. The obvious things are that Grumpy Joe doesn’t like the noise or that it can just be a distraction.

  2. Hi Phil, thanks for you comment 🙂
    I totally agree with you. Having a staff canteen or kitchen definitely causes more social interaction between employees, encourages conversation and spreads both knowledge about work and a general feeling of closeness between teams. It seems to be the case that they are used mostly by those who have jobs that put them under less stress rather than more. Perhaps encouraging more of the senior staff to use the canteens would reduce stress levels generally.
    I could certainly have a look into the association between music and motivation as well as task-based success. I must admit that I have worked places in the past that had a music server and it never seemed to catch on for very long. I think that Grumpy Joe doesn’t much like listening to Eminem for hours on end. I’d imagine that listening to music that one dislikes causes as much discontentment as listening to good music causes enjoyment. However I shall do some research!

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