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Simple tactics for improving workplace nutrition

This article was written by Peter Dehais and published in Benefits Canada

Our food-buying and consumption habits are influenced by a host of factors that never cross our conscious minds. And by simply changing the environment or situational context that people interact in, it is possible to affect their behaviour in a positive way, without needing to change their attitude or mindset. Employers can use this knowledge to influence their employees to adopt better eating habits.

The concept of behavioural economics—considered a hybrid of economics and psychology—has been in practice for years in the food industry, particularly in supermarkets. Ever wonder why the first thing you see as you enter a supermarket is the fresh and colourful produce section, or why the dairy products are located as far from the entrance as possible? These common traits of grocery stores are no accident; for years, marketers have studied the buying habits of consumers as they shop, carefully analyzing and planning every aspect of the food-buying experience in order to maximize the time and money spent by each shopper.

Behavioural economics has many applications in the workplace cafeteria. The same methods that are used to manipulate psychological frameworks to influence people to buy certain products and services can be applied in order to influence them to make choices that are better for them and—indirectly—the organization as a whole. Individual behaviour changes can result in a healthier workforce, improving the bottom line of the company through decreased insurance claims and increased productivity.

Research to determine how employees might react to influencing elements in their work-site cafeterias has had mixed results. Much of this work, such as a 2011 study by the American Dietetic Association, has focused on providing employees with clearly labelled nutritious options, allowing them to make the proactive choice to eat something healthier. However, the study also found that for these types of initiatives to show results, employees must already possess an attitude that pushes them to make healthy choices, such as choosing fruit over ice cream for dessert. Sure, the presence of a healthy label might influence the spur-of-the-moment decision, but, chances are, the employees most affected by healthy labelling are already the healthiest employees to begin with. In fact, the over-promotion of healthy foods can even discourage people from making healthy choices. As Brian Wansink, food behaviour expert and author of the book Mindless Eating, says, “If people feel persuaded, they will resist.”

A behavioural economics approach influences behaviour in a much more subtle way than advertising healthy choices or providing educational material. Making small changes to the layout of the workplace cafeteria will drive employees to make healthier choices without them even realizing it. This approach has been applied in some American schools with great success.

The tactics are straightforward yet effective. In his research at the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs, Wansink found that items presented under soft, focused lighting resulted in a 30% increase in sales. This research was done in grocery stores, but the same logic applies to the cafeteria. As Wansink says, “[The produce choices] just look more appealing than products under harsh overhead fluorescent lights.” But changing the lighting to increase fruit and vegetable consumption may seem like overkill. Thankfully, there are simpler ways to modify impulse purchases that are just as effective.

Think about the first thing that people see in the lunch line. In many buffet-style restaurants, carb-heavy options such as rice and pasta are presented first, so that customers load up on these cheaper (and less healthy) choices. Wansink and David R. Just’s Lunch-Line Redesign Study found that placing vegetables or other nutritious options at the beginning of the lunch line can increase the amount purchased by 10% to 15%, versus placing them in the middle of the line. Providing employees with more choices will also help them make the right choices. They also found that, when presented with a variety of nutritious options, people are more likely to load up on the healthy food. Cafeteria workers can trigger a positive impulse decision simply by verbally offering the healthy choice to every customer. In schools, this tactic increases salad sales by a third.

The way that food options are visually communicated has a huge impact on the selections we make. Rather than trying to push healthy choices with big in-your-face posters, workplaces should pursue the more elegant option of printing a menu with appetizing descriptions of the meals. Wansink and Just’s research found that giving the healthy options more descriptive names (e.g., Seasoned Asian Broccoli instead of Broccoli) increased sales by 27%.

This can be taken one step further with the physical placement of meal options. Wansink and Just also found that keeping ice cream in a closed freezer without clear doors significantly reduces ice cream sales. Placing healthy beverages in front and at eye level maximizes their sales. When people are required to spend that extra moment reaching for an unhealthy soda from the back, they are more likely to purchase water or juice instead. Fruit sales doubled when the fruit was placed in attractive bowls instead of stainless steel pans. Make the healthy desserts easier to get to than the cookies and treats and employees will go for those options without necessarily making the conscious decision to eat healthy.

Pulling the salad bar away from the wall and placing it before the checkout nearly tripled salad sales in the school studies conducted by Wansink and others.

Providing smaller bowls and plates will help employees decrease portion size without thinking about it. If that’s not an option, simply offering half-servings can achieve the same result.

If possible, designate one checkout line as the “healthy express line,” made available only to those purchasing healthy options. This interactive infographic put together by Wansink and Just for the New York Times demonstrates the application of these solutions in a school cafeteria. The People Analytics team at Google has experimented with some of these tactics with great results.

The bulk of the work in applying behavioural economics theories to a cafeteria setting has been conducted in schools, but that doesn’t mean these tactics don’t work with adults. After all, they are the ones being subconsciously swayed every day in grocery stores. Employers seeking to improve the nutrition habits of their employees would be wise to adopt some of these simple tactics. They will observe significant improvements in health without forcing employees to change their attitudes toward food.

This Article was written by Peter Dehais and published in Benefits Canada 

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