Americans spend approximately half of their waking hours at work. While employers may suggest that the majority of these individuals are healthy, the data indicates otherwise. These "healthy" individuals are at risk of being diagnosed with a medical illness as a result of inactivity, obesity, tobacco use or other behavior-based factors.
In fact, most of these individuals will, indeed, develop chronic behavior-induced illnesses during their lifetime, giving employers an opportunity to successfully intervene.-- US Corporate Wellness, Inc. Get Well: ROI-Based Analysis of Employee Wellness Programs. What we eat is directly correlated with our health, which is defined as freedom from illness and disease.
What we eat either positively or negatively impacts our cellular functions, which then positively or negatively impacts our immune and endocrine (hormones) system, which then results in health or illness. Companies can subsidize between 25-100 percent of employees' daily food intake depending on facilities, performance expectations, travel and expense policies, company-provided cafeterias, snacks, beverages and meals.
Some employees eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at the office, especially when "food perks" are designed to keep the employee productive and working longer hours. Yet, according to the RAND Employer Survey and DOL Workplace Wellness Study only 21 percent of employers focus on healthy foods as a health promotion corporate action.
Should Companies Invest in a Culture of Healthy Eating?
Corporate Wellness Programs focus on reducing employer healthcare costs through incentives, in-house facilities and education that promote healthy lifestyle choices. Incentives include rewards for participating in a wellness program, achieving certain health outcomes or metrics, or progress towards desired health outcomes such as, a targeted blood pressure, cholesterol, weight or body mass index (BMI) reading.
These incentives or rewards include reduced insurance premiums, cash/gift cards or contributions to health savings accounts. The cost of corporate wellness programs is estimated to increase to $594 per employee as employers recognize the importance of investing in preventative health initiatives and amounts to about a $2 billion market.[ii] Corporate food spend on business travel alone is approximately $40 billion.[iii] Corporate dining and catering is a big part of the $683 billion restaurant industry.[iv]
- A well-known Washington law and lobby firm typically holds 30 to 50 meetings a day in which they feed about 400 people. Some of those meals are billable to clients, while the company pays for others.
- Large consulting firms and investment banks with sophisticated procurement departments often look at $15-20 million budget line items for meals and entertainment that they are trying to manage and reduce.
- Zynga, developer of the popular Farmville and Chefville online games, serves an average of 4,000 meals per day, Monday through Friday, from coffee and breakfast service in the morning through dinner to their employees.
- 1,500 business travel managers for Fortune 500 companies represent approximately $12 billion in dining spend.[v]
Corporate dining costs are the third largest travel and entertainment expense after air and hotel. Companies are already utilizing the services of companies like Dinova, Seamless and Vmeals to consolidate and manage corporate dining costs.
With these enormous costs, and with companies now offering food as a new employee benefit, are employers responsible for creating a culture of healthy eating when what is served by employers and eaten by employees directly impacts health (see definition above)?
Challenges to Investing in a Culture of Healthy Eating?
While many employees welcome the efforts made by their employers regarding "healthier" food options, there are several challenges to investing in a culture of healthy eating.
- What is a "culture" of healthy eating? Some view it as a mandate or a dictatorship. While others see it as incentives, policies, or procurement requirements that support the supply and consumption of food that reduces the risk of illness and disease.
Many people worry about the unintended consequences of employers telling employees what to eat. Ironically, companies have been subsidizing unhealthy food for years in the form of vending machines, cafeterias that serve fried foods, high salt, sugar and fat content meals, reimbursement for fast food and more.
But for some reason people don't feel like companies are "telling them what to eat" when companies provide breakfast, lunch, and dinner from the same establishments simply because they are "around the corner", refuse to reimburse meals on travel when not dining with a customer or client or choosing a healthier, more expensive meal over a "traditional, conventionally acceptable meal," and seek to reduce costs by joining a preferred restaurant network.
- There is much confusion around what is considered "healthy" food. Much of it is due to the marketing of foods such as low salt, low fat, sugar-free, natural, etc., whose substitutes often achieve the opposite effects and result in weight gain, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.
Also, in today's world of so many food allergies and chronic diseases, people are on such strict diets that they have different definitions of what "healthy" eating is. Companies will need to agree on a definition of "healthy eating" that promotes optimum health rather than focusing on specific diseases.
- Food cuts across all budgets. Who owns the culture of healthy eating in an organization? Is it HR, the CFO, Chief Procurement Officer, Director of the Wellness Program, or VP of Sales?
- Perhaps most importantly is that food within a business environment is viewed as a cost-people have to eat; and a business development tool to build relationships with clients, customers, partners and staff. Companies need to view these objectives differently. Instead of looking at food as a cost of doing business, companies should start to look at food as the function it plays in employee health, managing healthcare costs and supporting corporate responsibility and sustainability initiatives.
As long as corporate dining expenses are viewed as a cost, the goal will only be cost reduction. Companies like Google, Microsoft, Zynga and Twitter have turned the food perk into an employee benefit; now companies should start looking at corporate dining expenses as an investment in the future of the business.
How Companies Can Start Investing in a Culture of Healthy Eating?
Creating a culture of healthy eating requires champions within an organization who believe that there is a direct connection between what people eat and their health, and that companies play an enormous role in their employees' health. Champions can start by:
- Thinking about T&E expenses as investments instead of costs. How can $15 million in corporate dining expenses result in healthier employees and lower healthcare costs? Unfortunately, most people don't know what goes into their meals. Most people tend to think in terms of taste not the nutrient quality of the ingredients.
People are developing more food allergies and more chronic diseases, including cancer because the ingredients in most of the food they eat is chemically treated, genetically modified and synthetically engineered.
$15 million dollars spent on the same menu of food choices, but different nutrients (unprocessed, non-chemically-treated, and non-genetically modified) would radically reduce the risks of illness and disease.
- Agreeing that "health and healthy" are defined as freedom from illness and disease, and that processed, chemically treated, genetically modified foods significantly increase the risk of illness and disease. This definition avoids all the marketing, diet, nutrition and medical confusion around "healthy foods."
- Adopting a new word for food. Food is now a terrible word to describe what we should be eating and what companies should be subsidizing and procuring.
- Has been adulterated with chemicals and genetically engineered;
- Has been engineered by processed food companies to make you eat more fat, salt and sugar than your body can sustainably process without breaking down; and
- Has been marketed as "healthy, low salt, low fat, sugar-free, natural" to convince you that it is good for you, when just the opposite is often the unfortunate truth.
Change the word from food to "nouri" and your perspective on what to eat, subsidize, and procure will change forever. Nouri is the new food. Nouri is non-chemically treated, non-genetically modified, unprocessed food that has high nutrient value, benefits the body, is prepared in a way that preserves the nutrients, which strengthens the immune system and reduces the risk of illness and disease.
With nouri as the new word for food-a new organizing principle if you will -- employers can create procurement policies, wellness incentives, and travel recommendations and policies around a nouri criteria. Start looking for nouri and you will be on your way to investing in a culture of healthy eating.
About the Author
Natasha Lger is an international trade attorney turned global strategy consultant to start-ups and Fortune 500 companies. She is Founder and President of ITF Advisors, a strategy advisory firm and co-Founder and Editor of LBx Journal, a location intelligence magazine.
Natasha lives in Colorado where she is mastering her nouri lifestyle and organic gardening skills. Natasha is passionate about living a healthy, happy life while being a road warrior, and is author of Travel Healthy: A Road Warrior's Guide to Eating Healthy.
[i] US Corporate Wellness, Inc. Get Well: ROI-Based Analysis of Employee Wellness Programs, 2013, p. 9.
[ii] National Business Group on Health Survey; Corporate Wellness Services in the US: Market Research Report, IBIS World, December 2013
[iii] 2014 Business Travel Survey, Business Travel News, May 26, 2014
[iv] The National Restaurant Association, 2014 Forecast.
[v] Global Business Travel Association