As obvious as it might sound, food is more than fuel for our bodies. It powers productivity, sparks creativity, and brings people together. Yet workplaces could do better.
In the Italian culture, there is the word “conviviality,” which perfectly conveys the holistic mood associated with eating with others: the delicious food, the conversation, the precious time together, and the friendly vibe. I see it happening all the time: food gathers families and friends around the table for hours, offering the space to check how everybody’s doing face-to-face. For most of us, this is a luxury confined to leisure, namely weekend and after-work.
Food in the Workplace
In fact, in the workplace, one of the most socially built environments, this rarely happens. When I think about work and the work-life I’ve experienced before starting my own company, it’s not hard to recall the world of food that has come along with it. There are many examples, but a few stuck with me: the soluble coffee I’ve brewed for my managers during my first internship, the Chinese takeaways consumed quickly before big shows, or the lunches skipped altogether because there was no time to eat.
One would assume that employers who want to maximize productivity, would provide their workforce with nourishing food and convenient access to healthy food, not to mention an appropriate space in which to consume food. In reality, workplace food programmes and offering are mainly a missed opportunity. The International Labour Office has reported that a poor diet on the job costs nations up to 20% in lost productivity, either due to malnutrition in developing countries or the excess weight and obesity afflicting workers in industrialized economies.
According to The New York Times Magazine (2016), roughly half of American adults eat quick lunches by themselves at work. 62% of professionals eat at their desks with their faces lit up by the glow of their computer screens, a phenomenon that sociologists have described as “desktop dining.” For those people, lunch is usually that moment to catch-up on personal emails or scroll endless social media feeds. Often, that means continuing some work.
In the landscape of eating on the job, there are also the in-between-meal occasions, like snacking, which are also typically “solo.” In the US alone, there are 5.1 million estimated vending machines stocked up with junk food and bad coffee, with figures as high in other countries. Amongst hundreds of factories I’ve visited, I have seen only one firm which didn’t have a single food and coffee vending machine for their employees, but they are manufacturers of espresso machines and have a wide range of specialty coffees available for their employees to brew.
As surprising as it might sound, eating solo is not that bad. In fact, there is a possible health benefit: unaccompanied lunches are probably smaller. Social scientists call the phenomenon that makes an individual eat more when surrounded by others ‘‘social facilitation.” The more people present, the more people eat up to 96 % more than they would have alone.
The Benefits of Eating Together in the Workplace
However, when we eat alone at our desk, we miss the valuable benefits of socializing, like boosted feelings of well-being and reduced feelings of depression, which makes for higher workplace engagement and satisfaction in the long run.
When we take a break, walk outside, breathe some fresh air, move and get new visual stimulations by shifting the environment our brain is happier, and have an increased appetite. That means that once we return to our desks after a meal, we most likely feel refreshed and re-energized, and ready to take on the challenges for the rest of the day.
Since we spend roughly 100,000 hours of our life on the job (Gallup, 2016), our workplaces should be a locale for meal provision, nutrition education initiatives, and opportunities to come together within a human space. After all, we are ultimately social beings who seek healthy relationships with each other. Eating with teammates allows for moments in which we can talk about work-related challenges but also share common interests and show up as humans beyond the constraints of the job title.
As leaders, business owners, and designers of our own lives in this hyper-connected and highly complex economy, we need to take the responsibility and reimagine work environments and social relationships that begin with people, from what feed and uplift us. A way to do that is by bringing awareness and human design into what we eat and drink, the contexts–tangible and intangible–in which we consume it and interact with each other.
Meal at Work
On Nov, 17th, a cohort of organizations in 14 countries and 3 continents celebrated eating on the job with the first global Meal at Work community event. We want to offer a platform to overcome the widespread and overlooked practice of mediocre eating at work, if not at all, across organizations of all sizes and industries. Together, we are going to have an intentional lunch designed to spark a conversation about gratitude. Each workplace gets the Meal at Work Toolkit. It will help them choose a suitable venue, invite the teammates, arrange and prep some delicious food, and facilitate the conversation. With Meal at Work, we aim at making nourishing food and conviviality the norm for every organization and create an accessible, diverse, and inclusive space for all of us. Because lunch together really makes workplaces better.
This is the start of something game-changing, and I’d love for you to be at the heart of it. Visit www.mealatwork.org to sign up with your workplace
This post originally appeared on CoFolk, a community for change makers co-creating a brave new future for work and business.