You’re sitting at work when your colleagues come over with the biscuit tin and you can’t help but tuck in. Before you know it, you’ve eaten five or six chocolate digestives without even noticing – we’ve all been there. “Office cake culture” makes up all those moments where sweet indulgences become the focus of workplace life. Professor Nigel Hunt, who spoke at the Royal College of Surgeons earlier in the year, defined it as those times “managers want to reward staff for their efforts, colleagues want to celebrate special occasions, and workers want to bring back a gift from their holidays,” and this is done using fatty, sugary, and often unhealthy foods on a regular basis.
He also talked about the prevalence of this as well as the dangers:
For many people, the workplace is now the primary site of their sugar intake and is contributing to the current obesity epidemic and poor oral health
Yvonne Akinmodun, Director of London HR consultancy Our HR Dept says it is certainly not a rare occurrence: “Most workplaces are likely to have an informal arrangement whereby treats are brought into the office on an ad-hoc basis. In some cases, managers will go out and buy cakes, biscuits or other sugar loaded items as a way of thanking their staff for a job well done.”
A treat here and there is nothing to worry about, but those five digestives can add up to a whopping 415 calories1 - 20% of a woman’s daily allowance and nearly 17% of a man’s. For something that doesn’t keep you going for very long, it isn’t ideal, and if it becomes a daily occurrence it can affect your health.
Why do we give in to temptation?
One psychological theory, known as social proof, argues that we learn how to behave in different situations based on cues from peers. Taking this one further, a theory called normative social influence has shown that people imitate others in order to be liked and accepted. Essentially, people may be over-eating to be part of the group and avoid being left out.
It’s easy to forget about a spontaneous extra that we didn’t plan into our day. Plus, the old adage that it doesn’t count since it’s someone’s birthday is well-worn. But, when there’s a birthday every week, or someone has come back from holiday with sweets, or the team just had a big win – the calories can really pile up.
The long term impact of workplace snacking
The average Brit currently works around 37 hours per week2, and the traditional 9 to 5 means some people are consuming most of their meals in the workplace. Given the fact that nearly a third (29%) of UK adults are considered overweight, and 19% very overweight3, our food consumption at work could certainly be attributed to our growing waistlines.
Expert on office life Akinmodun states: “The UK has a workforce of 31.42 million with only 13.4% of this number working from home. If we translate that to the number of people who are at work and are likely to have some tuckshop culture in their workplace, we can start to see the potential impact this could have on us as a nation.”
It is estimated that the average adult has around 200-300 calories extra per day4. That extra 200 calories could lead to a 20lb weight gain in a year5, and would take around two miles of walking to burn off6.
Using food as a reward is an impulsive behaviour too. Work can be stressful and cause emotional responses which could then spiral into unconscious eating; that instinctive draw that causes you to pick at your dinner after you’re full, or get a muffin with your coffee without really wanting one.
Studies have shown that having sweet treats visible in an office environment encourages people to consume more and this means that it’s really easy for workers to get more sugars and calories than they need.Bridget Benelam, Senior Nutrition Scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation.
The calories aren’t the only downside either. Benelam says it “can also mean you miss out on the essential nutrients provided by healthy snacks.” Being at your best when you feel overly full and feeling groggy is not an easy task, and can slow down productivity.
5 ways to resist sweet treats in the office
- Senior nutrition scientist Benelam relates the solution to the problem in this case. She advises that “we can make the most of our tendency to be tempted to eat the foods in view by putting healthier options like fruit, vegetable sticks, wholegrain crackers or unsalted nuts in easy reach. These are more nutritious and are more likely to keep you going for longer.”
- For those whose colleagues take more than a carrot stick as a refusal, you’ll have to simply be firm. Let them know that you don’t fancy anything right now, and refuse to be strong-armed. It takes willpower and confidence, but if you continue to politely decline, eventually it should stop.
- Why not also make it an opportunity to bring in food of your own to share? Over a quarter (26%) of people plan to eat healthier in the New Year7, which means you’re probably not alone in your quest to forgo the French Fancies. Some homemade granola bars or these energy bites would go down seriously well – without any guilt.
- Sometimes it’s the social interaction and moment away from work stresses that bring the need for comfort food. Ask your boss if you can take a quick lap around the building to clear your head, perhaps with a couple of colleagues. You’ll be surprised at how much better your concentration is when you get back.
- Managers should also take note to help make the office a beneficial environment. HR Director Akinmodun recommends ways that are becoming more popular to bring the feel-good factor into the workplace: “Some organisations are already moving towards healthier options as part of their standard offering within their vending machines and other places where staff access snacks. Some of these include healthy cereal bars, fruits and salt-free nuts. The drive towards healthy eating in some organisations includes initiatives such as fresh fruit Fridays or healthy eating lunch clubs.”
So, you may be craving a biscuit with your tea whilst you’re eating an apple, but it will be worth it in the long run. And, when everyone at work notices how great you feel, it might just catch on.
The UK’s sweet tooth: Are we sugar coating the truth?
Find out more about how those sweet treats affect your body with Aviva's exploration into sugar.
Can Nutrients Curb Your Cravings?
If you're still craving cakes and biscuits, check out this article on what your body might be telling you.
Aviva Health Check Report 2016 – Page 13 – Illness, GP visits and health perceptions
Aviva Health Check Report 2016 – Page 8 – Happiness with family health, goals and barriers