Business of Well-being

A Key Component of Corporate Wellness Programs: Food Wellness

Workplace could, sometimes, be a difficult place to really eat well, as employees are in a constant hurry to meet deadlines, engage new clients, send out emails, secure contracts, and send off proposals. Adults in the US spend a lot of their waking hours in the workplace, therefore, work-life and activities at work have a huge impact on the lives and health of employees. Employers, therefore, can seize the opportunity to improve employee health in no small way.

There are enormous long and short-term benefits of excellent food wellness programs and initiatives developed in the workplace. Ultimately, such initiatives will promote increased workplace productivity and cut down expenses that employers make on employee healthcare treatment. Short-term benefits of promoting food wellness for employees include improved sleep cycles, reduced anxiety and stress, improved mood and energy, and reduced risk of some chronic non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and stroke.

All of these benefits cumulate in promoting better interpersonal relationships, free flow of work between departments, and improved employee performance. In a climate where healthcare costs are rising drastically and where health crisis is growing, there is a need for employers to state simple, yet, vital steps in promoting a culture of health in the workplace.

Why Focus on Nutrition?

Diet has been established as a major risk factor for a number of chronic diseases including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. These conditions cost employers $28.2 million every year in productivity loss as a result of absenteeism and functional limitation. Cardiovascular disease, which comprises of hypertension, stroke, and heart attacks, is the leading cause of death in the US and has poor dietary choices as one of its risk factors.

As of 2015, 100 million Americans developed cardiovascular disease and it was revealed that it cost the US economy a sum of $555 billion in 2016 in direct and indirect costs. Cancer is the second leading cause of deaths in the US, with Lung cancer being the commonest cause of cancer deaths in both men and women. Statistics reveal that one out of every two men and one of every three women in the US will develop cancer.

Cancer costs the US a lot of lives and billions of dollars. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), cancer cost the US about $80.2 billion in 2015. More than half of this value was spent on hospital outpatient and doctor office visits, while the remaining accounted for the cost of inpatient hospital stay. Dietary factors have been linked to the development of a number of cancers. Studies have shown that diet accounts for 40% of cancer risk.

For example, a diet low in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products have been linked to a high risk of breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and cancers of the mouth, esophagus, and stomach. Obesity, which results from a combination of genetic factors as well as poor feeding and lifestyle habits, is at the center of most of these diseases and it increases an individual's risk as well as mortality rates. Obesity is associated with an over 50% risk of death from cancer.

Obesity is also associated with a 1.4 fold increase in the risk of hypertension. As simple as a food wellness program might seem, it has the potential of saving employers a lot of money and high-quality human resources. Great food wellness programs such as Food for Life: Kickstart your Health, a wellness initiative of the Physicians committee for responsible medicine provides weekly sessions for workers which consist of nutrition education, group discussions, and cooking demonstrations.

The program also provides support for employer's food service to include healthier options in the menu. Employers have begun looking at food wellness in a different light since they are becoming aware of the benefits of food wellness and the costs of ignoring that aspect of wellness. One of these employers is CampMinder, a tech company in Colorado, that provide colorful boxes containing lots of fruits and vegetables such as grapes, peppers, bananas in the break room for its employees.

The company hired Fruit Revival to make regular deliveries of these fruits and other snacks for its employees. "Yeah, sure, I still eat the Peanut M&Ms from time to time," said Chris Masella, an employee at CampMinder. "But having fresh produce, knowing that I could get an apple and have that in the morning instead is really beneficial." He added further. Several other companies provide free lunch services once or twice a week and supply healthy beverages for their employees free of charge.

Efforts employers can make to improve healthier nutritional choices of employees include initiating a "lunch-n-learn" sort of platform where healthy eating habits at work are discussed, and connecting employees to resources that provide meaningful information on healthy food choices and weight loss. Employers can incorporate this health information casually, for example, as part of the newsletter release for each month.

Companies with vending machines should re-evaluate the menu and reconstitute the inventory to ensure employees are getting healthy nutrition at the workplace. Unhealthy office food should be replaced with a lot of greens and fruits. "A supportive company culture is exemplified by company cafeterias, where healthy food is abundant, affordable, clearly labeled, tastefully prepared, and situated at eye level at the checkout counter. When possible, these foods are also priced lower than less healthy items," noted Ron Z.

Goetzel of Emory University in a review of workplace wellness studies published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine Some of these food wellness initiatives may be faced with certain challenges such as lack of interest by employees as noted by Kim Severson in an article in The New York Times titled "Told to Eat its vegetables, America Orders Fries."

Severson noted that only 26% of adult Americans eat vegetables three or four times every day, adding that this falls short of the national recommendation for consumption of vegetables. This is a great opportunity for employers to help tackle this problem at the workplace. Although employers can't, and shouldn't, control the food choices employees make, they can offer healthy options and make efforts at educating them on healthy eating habits for the employees to make the ultimate behavioral and lifestyle changes.

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