Food for Thought

New wellness strategies can work to persuade employees to eat their fruits and veggies.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015
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The nearly 2,000 employees at Angie's List have a clear understanding of their job responsibilities. So do Thistle, Corn Silk and Shadow, the company's resident hens. Their job is to lay eggs for the 76 employees who are members of the company's garden club.

Yes, Angie's List, a subscription service that helps its members find local service providers, maintains a garden, orchard -- and hens -- on its main campus in Indianapolis. All part of a "deep-seeded" commitment to wellness.

"We have a garden nestled between two parking lots," says Kelsey Taylor, the company's wellness director. "There are 36 raised beds and a small orchard filled with apple and pear trees."

For many years, numerous studies have linked good nutrition with a healthy body and mind. One published in May in the British Journal of Health Psychology, "On carrots and curiosity: Eating fruit and vegetables is associated with greater flourishing in daily life," reports that people eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables tend to be happier and more engaged, curious and creative.

Still, retraining employee taste buds is an uphill battle, forcing many employers to step up their game plan. Some companies now offer discounts on healthy foods purchased at Wal-Mart or in their cafeterias, or they coordinate employee field trips with a registered dietician to supermarkets to learn how to read food labels. By helping employees realize that peas and broccoli are not the enemy, many are tasting success. Employers are watching medical claims drop, reducing employee-healthcare premiums and smiling as employees feel more valued and motivated to perform their jobs.

Members of the Angie's List garden club pay an annual $30 fee for everything from seeds and compost to gardening tools. Most find their own gardening partners -- or Taylor selects people for them -- and are responsible for tending their raised beds.

"We rotate the crops each year so the nutrients are not depleted in the soil from the [crops grown] in the previous year," says Taylor, adding that club members share the bounty of carrots, kale, corn, squash, zucchini, herbs, peppers and melons. "They're willing to commit the time and energy to get their hands dirty."

Taylor began promoting the garden club in 2009 through her monthly employee-wellness newsletter. Fifteen joined that year. She suspects some were lured because they could earn fitness points tending their gardens. When employees work out at the company's free, on-site wellness center, which can include tending to their gardens, they earn fitness points that translate into gift cards for local retailers.

Since then, Taylor's been introducing the club during employee orientations and periodically mentions it in her newsletter, especially around planting time.

"Who wouldn't like to say they work at a place that has a garden on-site?" she says, adding that, at the very least, it plants a seed in employees' minds about the importance of nutrition.

Change the Environment

While many companies serve healthy food in their cafeterias, some add an incentive: discounting healthy products.

Five years ago, Paychex -- whose 13,000 employees nationwide manage and administer payroll, benefits and HR services -- began increasing its cafeteria prices on just unhealthy foods such as burgers and fries, says Bob Merberg, employee wellness program manager at Paychex in Rochester, N.Y. The price differential between unhealthy and healthy products -- such as bottled water and soda -- has since climbed to 15 percent.

Between 2013 and 2014, he says, sales for bottled soda dropped 8 percent while bottled-water sales increased 17 percent, and the number of employees purchasing salads increased by 54 percent. Also worth noting -- hamburger sales decreased by 25 percent while turkey burgers increased by 68 percent.

According to the company's 2014 wellness survey, the No. 1 employee request was for gym-membership discounts followed by healthy food in the cafeteria, vending machines, and at meetings or events, says Merberg. Two-thirds also reported that the wellness program, which includes healthy eating promotions, makes them feel more valued and more likely to be "motivated to do their very best in their jobs."

HR is listening and taking action. It introduces weekly challenges such as "give a co-worker a piece of fruit." Workers can either bring fruit from home or purchase it from the employee cafeteria. The only reward employees receive is the sensation of doing something nice for a co-worker. Around the holidays, it offers a six-week online program called Fit and Festive. An estimated 3,500 employees participated last year by forming small teams and entering their beverage and food intake online. They earn points for healthy behaviors such as consuming just one serving of potatoes but also lose points for unwholesome actions, such as drinking high-calorie beverages. Teams don't receive prizes, says Merberg, just bragging rights.

Approximately 100 employees at Paychex's Rochester office also pay $25 each week to a community-supported agricultural group that arranges for seasonal fruits and veggies from local farmers to be delivered to their office building. Another program launched in June guides employees on making healthy choices at restaurants, dealing with food cravings and avoiding spiraling out of control.

Next year, the company plans on publishing a book, Paychex Gets Cookin, which will feature 70 healthy employee recipes and tips for supporting each other's healthy eating goals, such as leaving your holiday candy at home. The book will be free upon employee request.

Mind you, many of its 100 offices nationwide, some employing fewer than 100 workers, don't have on-site cafeterias with healthy food or work with agricultural groups to arrange deliveries of fresh produce from local farmers. In these situations, Merberg says, there's not much HR can do to control employee access to unhealthy foods.

"Availability of [healthy] food is key," Merberg says. "We tend to think of this as behavioral, but it's predominantly an environmental issue. Our challenge is being able to support healthy eating in situations where we have limited access or influence over the environment."

Small Nudges, Big Outcomes

Sometimes, it doesn't take much to change employee food habits.

Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., for example, offers smaller plates in its employee cafeteria to reduce portion sizes, uses a colored coding system to help employees distinguish between healthy and less healthy foods and conceals unhealthy options such as candy in opaque containers instead of clear containers, says Laura Putnam, author of Workplace Wellness that Works, and CEO at Motion Infusion, a well-being consulting and training firm in San Francisco.

She points to other companies championing healthy eating, such as Schindler Elevator Corp. in Las Vegas, which teaches managers about the importance of healthy eating as part of its leadership-development training. Also consider IDEO in Palo Alto, Calif., which moved its sodas one shelf lower in the employee refrigerator while moving water up one shelf, a move that "dramatically reduced soda consumption," says Putnam.

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Some companies are less subtle, going all out to send a strong message. Four years ago, Rex Healthcare in Raleigh, N.C., removed all fried foods from its patient menu and did the same two years later for its cafeteria menu, says Jim McGrody, director of culinary and nutrition services at the 5,800-employee hospital.

Unlike other hospitals, he says, this one supports seven chefs, features healthy food stations in its cafeteria with meals under 550 calories and now attracts nearly 100 employees to its monthly, 30-minute, cooking demonstrations held on weekday afternoons.

"As the years have gone by, we've noticed our co-workers are more engaged, wanting to learn more about healthier foods," McGrody says, adding that any employee can attend and won't be docked in pay.

The hospital recently partnered with The Vitality Group in Chicago, which offers an incentive-based workplace health promotion and prevention program that encourages employees to engage in healthy behaviors.

HR began promoting the program by sending out an email blast to employees and attending employee staff meetings to explain how the program works, says Jill Radding, director of HR at Rex.

Two years ago, she says, HR added a healthy eating component to its wellness program. When employees purchase a healthy meal in the cafeteria, they hand the cashier their Vitality Healthy Food card to stamp. (Cards are placed in a basket by the salad bar.) After receiving 15 stamps, employees turn the card in to HR for wellness points that translate into reduced medical premiums. Employees can submit one card per quarter.

"An employee with family coverage can save almost $2,000 a year," Radding says, adding that employees also earn points for other wellness activities. "Since we introduced this wellness program . . . we have been at or below market trend on our medical claims. There are less high-cost medical claims."

The hospital's wellness center also coordinates about 75 grocery store tours each year with a registered dietician to help employees better understand food labels. Likewise, when workers shop at Wal-Mart and show the cashier their "Healthy Foods" membership card, they receive a 5 percent to 10 percent discount on designated healthy foods and also earn points that translate into gift cards, says Jonathan Dugas, director of clinical development at The Vitality Group.

Still, even when combined, these programs can't always compete with the fast-food restaurant across the street.

"[Employers] can't keep people from going there for lunch," says Dugas, adding that food vendors can also offer creative tips for healthy eating. "What HR [leaders] can do is control their environment [by] . . . not making it very easy for people to have unhealthy options."

The Vitality Group is following its own advice. For about $1 a day, he says, it began offering healthy breakfasts last year for its 200 employees. The menu includes high-fiber cereals with low-fat milk, fat-free yogurt, fresh fruits and plain oatmeal.

"Although people have freedom of choice, I'm not going to make it easy for [them] to make bad choices," Dugas says. "I'm going to do my best to make sure that I give them healthy choices in the office. That will maybe move the needle a little bit or a lot. I'm doing the right thing by making sure I'm not providing those unhealthy choices."

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