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Lou Walker

Lou Walker, author of the report

Published in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management, the study, which is believed to be the first of its kind, explored the behaviours and attitudes of nearly 1,000 UK office workers towards ‘office cake’ – sugary offerings provided by employees and management for colleagues to share.

The survey, conducted at the University of Chester, found office cake changes employee eating habits and makes workplace environments less healthy, potentially undermining return on investment of workplace health and wellbeing spend. 

A key finding was that despite its popularity and high prevalence, almost all (95%) respondents said the ideal frequency for office cake would be once a week or less. The most popular frequency, according to 41% of respondents, would be once a month.

The presence of cake, and the social influencing effects associated with it, led it to be eaten whenever it is available – which was at least once or twice a week in 87% of respondents’ workplaces and daily in 8%. Over a third (36%) of respondents said they never refused cake and over two thirds (68%) found it hard to resist to some extent even if they are not hungry or have just eaten a meal. Nearly a third (31%) felt it had contributed to weight gain, 59% said it made it harder to stick to a weight loss diet and 38% said it made it harder to eat healthily at work.

Although cake was considered by 80% to be a good way to bring colleagues together, most is displayed on a desk or in a kitchen for people to help themselves to rather than forming part of a social gathering.

The study also found statistically significant differences in behaviour and attitude towards office cake according to gender and age. For example, more women than men acknowledged negative consequences of office cake and found it harder to resist. Fewer older respondents than younger thought cake was a good way to show appreciation or were persuaded to change their minds if they had initially refused it. These differences could make this type of workplace eating difficult for employers to tackle sensitively and effectively. 

Health coach Lou Walker, who conducted the research for her MSc in Obesity and Weight Management at the University of Chester, says the study provides practical insights into how the workplace can contribute to public health efforts to reduce conditions such as obesity and type two diabetes.

She believes that the near consensus for having office cake once a week or less, coupled with employees’ value for social gatherings, provides an important opportunity for workplaces to rethink office cake.

Viewed alongside social influencing evidence, the study’s data suggest it is possible that office cake is prevalent not because people want it several times a week but because they feel uncomfortable suggesting otherwise. Said Walker: “Office cake often comes from a place of generosity and kindness which makes it hard for anyone to suggest cutting down. Yet this study suggests many people feel the same way about having cake less often – but no one realises this because no one talks about it. So we need to start a conversation!  And with the knowledge that almost all those surveyed said the ideal frequency for office cake was once a week or less, employers can be more confident when taking steps to reduce sugar in the workplace.”

She continued: “We know our surroundings influence our health. Employees spend around half their waking hours at work so if there was less sugary food available in workplaces, overall health could improve. There are some fantastic workplace health initiatives, but ignoring office cake is ignoring the elephant in the room. Workplaces have an important role in tackling obesity and other metabolic diseases which are linked to sugar consumption. This research suggests employers don’t need to ban cake. It might be more productive to start a conversation about it as the first step to making it an occasional treat rather than a part of everyday office life. Everyone would win – employees, employers and public health.”

Dr Orla Flannery, Senior Lecturer of the Faculty of Health, Psychology and Social Care at Manchester Metropolitan University, was Lou’s supervisor at the time of her Master’s at the University of Chester. She said: “This research highlights why it is important to focus on the workplace for promoting health and well-being.  As Lou has highlighted in her research, this is not about banning cake, but it is about trying to look at how we can make our work environment healthier and offer healthier snacks.  We need to extend the research to look at a wide range of work environments and understand cake culture in these settings, such as our hospitals and schools.”

Dr Katherine Markwell, who is the Programme Leader of the Master’s in Obesity and Weight Management in the Department of Clinical Sciences and Nutrition at the University of Chester, added: “Given the large proportion of time spent in workplaces, many health promotion interventions in these settings have focused on food and physical activity.  This exciting new study illuminates how this is another aspect to consider when tackling improving the population’s health, along with the many other important changes needed in our society.”                              

In light of the findings of her research, Lou’s recommendations are:  

  • Encourage a conversation around how often people actually want office cake – the research suggests this will probably be less than you think.
  • Make cake special again. Propose that work teams/departments voluntarily opt to have a weekly ‘cake day’ (or less frequently if they prefer).  Birthdays and special occasions could all be acknowledged and celebrated on the next cake day.
  • Have a conversation about whether anyone would mind if edible treats were no longer brought back from holidays or business trips.  Alternatively, gifts from foreign trips could be saved for cake day.
  • Stop having cakes openly displayed all day. Instead, agree a ‘cake time’ with colleagues. Until then, store cakes out of sight, ideally in opaque containers in a cupboard. This will prevent mindless grazing and enhance the benefits of coming together for a sociable break on the agreed day/ time.
  • Use the out of sight, out of mind approach in kitchens and cafeterias.  Keep kitchen surfaces clear of unhealthy food, biscuits etc. Make healthy alternatives more prominent and accessible. In cafeterias, place plentiful healthy options at eye-level and fewer, less-healthy options lower down.
  • Offer healthier alternatives to cake. Depending on the preferences of the people involved, this could be something savoury, fruit, nuts, or vegetables and dips for example.
  • To get the social benefits of eating and talking together, suggest a team picnic lunch as an alternative to cake and other unhealthy snacks.  Then the treats are instead of lunch not as well as lunch.
  • Consult colleagues on potential alternatives to confectionery or cakes/pastries as reward and recognition.  Consider flowers, vouchers, some sort of special privilege (eg car parking space) or time. Time could mean starting work later, a longer lunchbreak by arrangement or clocking off early.
  • Over half of respondents thought meeting refreshments at their workplace did not offer enough healthy options. Consult employees (and clients) on alternatives.

The paper can be found at: https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/IJWHM-03-2019-0039/full/html

 

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