by Emma Hammond
Associate Solicitor – Employment Law – Genus Law
I promise that this is not another one of those New Year articles making your January even more depressing by telling you to eat less, drink less and exercise more, so please read on…
A recent reader’s letter in the Times got me thinking about the relationship between food and workplace wellbeing. The letter was bemoaning the demise of Judges’ canteens, now that they have fallen victim to Government cuts, allegedly saving £1.3 million from the catering budget.
As you can imagine, that Judges now have to bring their own packed lunches was seen by some as a “slice of justice”. In fact, this letter was focussing on the key to good food habits at work, particularly when office-based, being inextricably linked to improved employees’ mental health. It’s arguable that these habits will become more important with the increase of mobile working and therefore the potential rise in employee isolation.
The proof is in the eating
Some Judges were saying that theirs can be a stressful and lonely profession and having lunch with their colleagues in a canteen environment was good for them and actually helped to combat any isolation. The cynical among you will no doubt say they are also annoyed at having to take or buy their own meals and do the washing up (yes, apparently some of them have been spotted in pink marigolds!). However, I think there’s more to it than that.
Eating at your desk, getting crumbs in your keyboard does nothing to help you bond with your colleagues. It allows little opportunity to look up from your keyboard or even better stretch your legs and give your brain a well-earned rest; all of which everyone needs on a daily basis and all of which no doubt also improves our output at work. Worryingly, a recent study by BUPA of 2,000 employees revealed that 480 of them (24%) said they felt pressurised not to take a lunch break and 43% of those who took a break said they rarely left the office during this time.
Food is one of life’s necessities. However, even if you see it as pure fuel rather than something to be savoured and enjoyed, I imagine there is only a small minority who would disagree with me in saying that eating with others rather than alone is an infinitely more pleasurable experience. People bond over food and that’s no less true of colleagues in the workplace.
In a canteen environment you’ll meet people from other departments. You might even solve that niggling problem that, in a meeting environment you just couldn’t fathom, but over a shared lunch in a more relaxed environment you manage.
Let them eat cake…or fruit
With budgets being cut left right and centre, we’ve all seen a decline to near extinction of the previously ubiquitous “meeting biscuits and sandwiches”. Whilst this is not a bad thing for the waistline, it all forms part of the move towards food no longer forming part of bringing people together at work.
It’s not exactly radical but why not provide a fruit bowl or some healthy snacks in meetings instead if the focus is on making better choices? Or, as I’ve done at a previous workplace, introduce a 4pm break one Friday a month where members of the team bring something in to share so they can wind down together before the weekend?
At Genus Law we have a colleague with a number of food allergies and, as a relatively new employee, it’s been so positive to see how other members of the team bring in homemade cakes, which are free of any allergens, specifically to be inclusive. I spoke to a surgeon recently about his team bake offs. He was genuinely gushing over how they had done more for his team in relation to bonding and improved working together than any formal exercise had ever done. Again, food had brought them together.
If any of you attended the Mindful Employer conference at Eversheds in Leeds last November, then this theme of striving to improve employees’ mental health and therefore their productivity will strike a chord with you. Leeds Mind (the lead partner for Mindful Employer in Leeds) has just had funding approved for a coordinator who will lead the work towards planning another conference in 2016. They’re aiming high; to put Leeds on the map as THE beacon city in the UK for employers who are committed to achieving positive mental health at work and raise the bar for others to follow…..sounds like as good a New Year’s resolution as any to me!