Many people can relate to having a love-hate relationship with food at work.
Sometimes it is a welcome sight because you either did not pack anything or accidentally left your lunch on the counter when you were flying out the door.
Other times, it is your worst enemy. You had your eating all planned out but then a platter of goodies shows up in the breakroom and, out of the blue, you have to face this internal battle with yourself about whether or not to:
- Stick to what you brought
- Indulge in the free stuff that everyone else is now eating
- To heck with it, just have both
Basically, you either feel bad about your lack of willpower (whatever that is) or appear to be the food snob, food police, or on a diet (again). You just can’t win.
That’s where workplace wellness policies come in, right? They are supposed to guarantee healthy foods/beverages and time for physical activity at work, and thus, fix the problem, right? Well, as a corporate wellness professional, I certainly used to think so. But now I’m not so sure.
When I started my career back in 2007, I was adamant that workplaces needed strong, detailed, formally approved health policies.
You can imagine my surprise when the same decision makers who hired me to improve the health of their employees, contain medical costs, and improve productivity would not support a healthy meeting policy – or even a healthy meeting “declaration,” for that matter. No exaggeration…it took six months, two surveys, three committees, multiple presentations, hours of discussion and all the evidence, data, rationale, employee support, and peer pressure I could muster to finally get an approval for what ended up being called “Guidelines for Smart Eating Opportunities: Our Commitment to Provide Nutritious Foods and Beverages at County-Sponsored Meetings & Events.”
Yes… all that… for guidelines.
Needless to say, I felt defeated and frustrated at the time. (If you have anything to do with worksite wellness, you might have similar feelings.)
However, a decade later, I am coming to the realization that it might have been the best thing that could have happened.
I ended up learning three things that gave me an entirely new perspective on policies and other outside-in approaches to health:
A “policy” is only as good as the change that follows it. Call it what you want – a policy, declaration, guidelines, whatever. What makes it good is if it works. And to make it actually work, you have to get employees on board with it (with pledges, campaigns, trainings, etc.). It’s a big undertaking, but when they are on board, the possibilities are endless. Our senior management team quit serving food altogether at weekly meetings – a move that saved them not only a few donuts, but also some time and money. A couple departments decided to supply their own mini fridges stocked with affordable, healthy snack and lunch options. And more fruit and vegetable platters began to appear at “people-sponsored” gatherings, such as birthday parties and break rooms. Needless to say, well-rounded efforts can bring success both in and outside of the employer-sponsored meetings and events.
Outside-in approaches, no matter how well they are done, can only do so much. Wellness professionals and employers can bend over backwards to ensure healthy options at work… they can pass policies, run programs, and pay for gym memberships, screenings, and insurance premiums. But these strategies will only ever scratch the surface… until we go deeper and help people change the way they THINK about themselves, their health, and their ability to achieve it their own way. Change like this – from the inside out – equips people to succeed regardless of what kind of food is in front of them.
There is danger in over-complicating health. Health – at its core – was never meant to be wrapped up into multiple-page policies, 12-week programs, or in conjunction with carrots or sticks. Health is intended to be for and about PEOPLE… to be something each and every one of us can do on our own, fairly easily, every day.
Don’t get me wrong.
I fully believe in making the healthy choice the easy choice wherever we are (at work or elsewhere). In fact, I recently created a 7-step process to simplify and streamline the workplace health policy process for the 45 municipalities involved in LiveWell Colorado’s HEAL Cities & Towns Campaign… and it’s proving to be quite helpful.
Yet I still cannot help but wonder if companies would be better off spending less time in the “policy part” and more time in the “people part” of the process.
Is it really worth the endless revisions, exacting of food criteria, and “but, what if…” arguments that often go into creating the “perfect” workplace health policy? Or, instead, could we just ask decision makers to agree on and formally/publicly commit to these three simple things:
- Our company supports and accommodates employees moving enough to feel and perform their best… which likely means moving more than they sit and more often than they eat.
- Our company supports and accommodates employees eating real food, not too much, and mostly plants, as author Michael Pollan suggests in his book, In Defense of Food.
- Our company supports and accommodates employees in drinking water.
Wouldn’t these – in a lot fewer words and less time – accomplish what we are after?
Wouldn’t it provide the justification to employees to sit less and move more? To offer less processed food and more “real” food at work-related events? To skip sugar-sweetened beverages and provide water instead? Might it actually reflect health in its truest, simplest form – the way employees want it? I am starting to think so. By making our health and our health policies any more wordy or complicated, I am afraid we might be missing the mark.
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