Are We Missing the Mark on Healthy Workplace Policies?

Most of us 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 meals all planned out.


Then - out of the blue - leftovers show up in the break room and you have to face this internal battle with yourself of whether or not to

1) stick to what you brought or

2) eat the free stuff that everyone else is eating, or

3) eat both. 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. Thankfully, workplace wellness policies are starting to ensure healthier food options, time for physical activity, and less sugar-sweetened beverages at work. This should take care of the problem. Right? 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.


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 just for guidelines. Needless to say, I felt defeated and frustrated at the time. However, a decade later, I am coming to realize 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:

1. Policies are only as good as the change that follows

Call it what you want - a policy, declaration, guidelines, whatever. What makes it good is if it works. To make it work, you have to follow-up and get employees to participate. The wellness committee and I did this by asking employees and leaders to read the guidelines and sign a pledge of support, offering training, and running campaigns to keep healthy eating in the forefront.


As a result, our workplace food environment slowly started to improve. Our senior management team stopped serving food altogether at weekly meetings - a move that saved them not only a few calories but also some time and money. A couple departments decided to supply their own mini-fridges stocked with affordable, healthy snack and lunch options.


More fruit and vegetable platters began to appear at "people-sponsored" events, such as birthday parties and break rooms. Our well-rounded efforts brought successes both in and outside of the employer-sponsored meetings and events we originally focused on.

2. Outside-in approaches, no matter how well done, can only accomplish so much.

Wellness professionals and employers can bend over backward 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 scratch the surface until we go deeper and help people change how 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.

3. There is danger in overcomplicating health.

Health - at its core - doesn't need 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 everyone of us can do on our own, easily, every day. Don't get me wrong, I fully believe in making the healthy choice the easy choice wherever we are.


In fact, I recently created a resource for LiveWell Colorado and its partners called "Healthy Workplaces: Steps & Streamlined Information to Help Colorado Municipalities Improve Food and Beverage Environments." It simplified the workplace health policy process into the following seven steps:

  1. Recruit low or no-cost technical assistance: Health departments, statewide health initiatives, etc. have experts ready to help with workplace health policies. By all means, tap into this resource.
  2. Gather evidence, input, and support: Know what the Healthy Eating Active Living Convergence Partnership, Center for Science in the Public Interest, and other respected agencies have to say about healthy workplace policy. Familiarize yourself with research such as The CHIPS Study to learn how pricing and promotion effects low-fat vending snack purchases. Leverage information from your own company's health reports, culture audits, and health interest surveys, as well.
  3. Take to the toolkits, guides, and standards: Why recreate the wheel? Glean from the American Heart Association's Healthy Workplace Food and Beverage Toolkit, the CDC's Guide to Choosing Foods and Beverages for Healthy Meetings, Conferences, and Events, Nemours Healthy Vending Guide, NAMA's FitPick, and the USDA's Smart Snack guidelines.
  4. Learn from peers: Be sure to study or call the "competition" to find out what they are doing to promote health in their organizations. Your leaders will want to know how they and their policies compare.
  5. Choose and customize initiatives. Get a committee together to discuss, select, and customize next steps (i.e. campaigns, vendors, etc.) that will complement the health policy you are trying to adopt.
  6. Communicate, educate, and follow through: Create an action plan for how to keep health policies and initiatives alive in your workplace.
  7. Celebrate and evaluate: Finally, highlight and showcase successes, gather and share testimonials, and do necessary pre and post comparisons to measure the impact of your policy efforts. People like good news, so find it and celebrate it!

No doubt these seven steps simplify the workplace policy process for those in charge of them. Yet I still cannot help but wonder if companies are too ensconced in the policy writing part of the process. Is there any way they could bypass the endless revisions, exacting of food criteria, wordsmithing, and "but, what if" arguments?


I would like to believe so. Any more, I would simply ask decision-makers if they could agree on and adopt these three simple commitments:

  1. 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.
  2. Our company supports and accommodates employees eating real food, not too much, and mostly plants, as author Michael Pollan suggests.
  3. Our company supports and accommodates employees in drinking water.

Wouldn't these - in fewer words - accomplish what we are after? Wouldn't it lead to less sitting, less processed food, and less sugar-sweetened beverages at work? Wouldn't it lead to increased physical activity, real food, more whole-grains, more fruits and vegetables, and more water? Might it actually reflect health in its truest, simplest form the way employees want it? I am sure starting to think so. By making our health policies any wordier or complicated, I am afraid we might be missing the mark.

About the Author

Liz De Jongh, MS, works with CEOs, business leaders, and health professionals who need people to take charge of their health and perform at the top of their game! For more information about Liz and Well Simplified, visit: wellsimplified.com