What food are we in the mood for?

The Footprint Forum later this month will tackle the role of food in performance at work and staff wellbeing. Caterers have a massive role to play in this agenda as David Burrows explains.


Footprint Forum Mood Food – Feeding the top performers in the workplace. Book Now


WHAT DID you do on January 16th? Most of us, in our post-Christmas haze, will have sat – perhaps still a little bloated from the festive gluttony – sifting through unopened emails and credit card bills; our whisky-fuelled New Year dreams washed away with the rain that batters the windowsill. Or at least so we are told.


Blue Monday is when we are at our most miserable. It’s the day when a combination of factors – from weather, to proximity to Christmas and levels of debt – join together in a perfect storm of despair. But can you remember what you ate that day? Did you choose something that made you feel a little better? Something that lightened your mood? Perhaps something a little detoxifying? Or a slice of something naughtier?


Whatever you chose, it probably wasn’t turkey; but it probably did make you feel a little better – even for just an instant (sugar can do that, as can almonds which are high in magnesium which helps release mood-boosting hormones). Food affects our mood. And, ergo, it affects our performance.


We spend most of our lives at work, and many of us will eat breakfast and lunch – as well as the snacks in between – in working hours. Yet food at work, for many employers, is often an afterthought. But is this changing? Are corporates really beginning to buy into concepts like ‘mood food’ and ‘wellness’? Or are these just fads that will disappear as quickly as the January diet plans?


“A few years ago, I’d talk to potential clients about health and wellbeing programmes for their employees and they would look at me as if I had just dropped in from another planet,” explains Oliver Gray, a leading expert in employee wellbeing and founder of EnergiseYou. “But more and more companies of all shapes and sizes are ‘getting it’.”


Mood food, for instance, has been identified as a ‘top ten food trend’ for 2012 by Food and Drink Towers. Gray admits the recession knocked health and wellbeing off the corporate radar, but he’s sure the “spark is back”. He explains: “Some companies are leading the way and saying this is how the businesses of the future will be. Others are just starting to dabble with some of the ideas. Meanwhile, some have a wellbeing agenda but they are not yet linking it to potential cost savings.” Whether investing in staff wellbeing, including the food that’s served in canteens or found in vending machines, provides a return on investment will be hotly debated at the Footprint Forum later this month. Gray says some companies are beginning to join the dots between a healthy workforce, improved productivity and reduced absence. But he admits that convincing the board to invest in health and wellbeing can be a harder sell than a project relating to the environment: a reduction in carbon, for instance, can be reflected in a drop in monthly energy bills; savings from a robust staff health and wellbeing policy are harder to identify. Viable measurements though, such as turnover and absence, and this is providing more solid evidence to back up the theories around concepts such as mood food.


There’s a growing trend for companies to address staff wellbeing and an increasingly large body of evidence that show the benefits of doing so,” says Jessica Colling, product director at vielife.


Colling will be unveiling new research at this month’s Footprint Forum. This will add to data from vielife’s other studies, one of which showed that the most healthy quartile of the workforce is seven hours more productive a week than the least healthy quartile. Another, involving 15,000 people in the UK and US, found that employees with poor nutritional balance reported 21% more sick-related absence and 11% lower productivity than healthier colleagues.


The latter figure opens up an interesting dynamic: employers can see their staff at work, but are some of them – the healthier ones – working more productively? Michael Jenkins, chief executive at the Roffey Park Institute, says their research has “repeatedly found a correlation between individual wellbeing and the financial and strategic success of the organisation they work for”. However, he feels that “we need to look deeper – at the links between employee engagement, productivity and how these elements can positively affect the bottom line”.


Again it comes back to the bottom line. Caroline Fry, CH&Co CEO, says “it’s an absolute fact that if you eat well and are hydrated you are productive but what’s more difficult to prove is how much more productive you are”. That doesn’t mean healthier food in the workplace more generally should be a hard sell though. “Some environmental initiatives can come at a cost, like a change in packaging or buying British, but cutting salt, for instance, doesn’t,” she adds.


Fry feels the catering industry has an added responsibility when it comes to staff health and wellbeing, not just for its own employees but for client’s staff too: “We’ve got a massive part to play.” Colling at vielife agrees: “Do caterers have a responsibility for wellbeing? I think so, yes. They provide food choice and have a responsibility to provide information on healthier choices.”


Choice is vital: a limp salad is not a viable alternative to a plate of fish and chips. What’s more, staff don’t want to be told what to eat, while employers don’t want to be seen as ‘big brother’. Marketing will therefore be a powerful tool when it comes to healthier choices – and caterers can drive this. Take the example of Lexington Catering which relaunched its ‘let’s energise’ range in January. The range, which has been carefully designed by expert nutritionists and carries nutritional information on calories and sat fats, has more than returned on its investment.


“The approach we’ve taken is to make the products an individual choice,” says managing director, Julia Edmonds. “We’ve made it tasty, appealing and healthy and that’s been key. It’s been an easy sell to clients. People are generally more interested in health and wellbeing, but they’re also interested in foods that maintain energy levels.”


The role of caterers is to provide the right balance – and how to determine that will be another topic at the Forum. That balance could, of course, include less healthy options too. “Indulgence is very much a part of wellbeing,” says Peter Odgers, an expert in hospitality at the University of Brighton. “There are lots of discussions about healthy diets but you also need food for the mind. Sometimes we need that sticky toffee pudding as part of our wellbeing.” And if it isn’t available at the staff canteen, or the last one has just gone, a fruit salad or a bowl of almonds might not be an acceptable substitute.