8th October 2020

The carrot and stick approach to employee mental health

9th January, 2019

Helen Tiffany

As understanding of the link between what we eat and how we feel continue to grow, organisations need to pay more than lip service to employee nutrition. But above and beyond maintaining fresh contents in the office 'fruit bowl' what should companies be doing and how?

While a healthy diet and wellbeing are relatively easy to acknowledge in the office, the food/mental health link is a much more sensitive issue. Imagine suggesting someone’s bipolar might be better managed by enriching their diet with fish oil, even if the Omega-bipolar link has been well researched?

At the same time, what people choose to eat is deeply personal and in a world where many of us micro-manage our nutrition through not only what we eat but when and how much, employer input might be hard to swallow – particularly as so many of us plunge in to post festive detoxes and diets.

What you eat & how you feel

But that doesn’t mean that employee involvement shouldn’t be on the menu. “The evidence is now building about the direct association between what people eat and how they feel, observes the Mental Health Foundation in their briefing Food for Thought. Studies have identified links between vegetable consumption and mental wellbeing, saturated fats and cognitive impairment, poor diet and poor behaviour at school, low folic acid intake and depression, low antioxidant levels and schizophrenia, fish oil and bipolar… This body of work continues to grow.

One approach might be to leave it to government led health initiatives. But according to former senior marketing executive turned health coach, Caroline Lamont, there is a fundamental issue with this level of nutritional advice.

5 a day?

She cites Public Health Collaboration. This UK charity that informs and implements healthy decisions for better public health, says that while the official 5 a day and Eat Well guidelines are being followed by the majority, ill health and stress continue to rise.

For example, 5-a-day choices often tend toward fruit rather than vegetables, raising sugar levels higher than the recommended daily intake. And people are taking 5 too literally which sets the nutrition bar a little low for optimal health. Caroline, for example, tries to have 8 or 9 portions, with the emphasis on veg not fruit.

At the same time, modern, time-poor lives encourage pre-prepared, cook-chill, processed food options, where a bottled smoothie contributes to our ‘free sugar’ intake in a way that whole fruit does not; fats and preservatives lurking under the beautifully photographed packaging of even the most upmarket ready meal.

“We want our food intake to focus on wholesome foods, as minimally processed as possible,” says Caroline. “Diet should be 50% vegetables. The more you cook at home, the more you will achieve this. You can also choose your take-out wisely: chains such as Pret, Leon, EAT, Tossed, Itsu do provide great choices for work lunches.”

How can employers play a role?

Former international athlete turned business coach Ben Tipney believes the key is creating work environments that encourage balance and create the space to enable better nutrition and also reduce stress.

For example, while back-to-back meetings may power drive through a team’s workload, they’re more likely to encourage fast and junk food eaten on the run. While no boss can insist someone sit down and eat something wholesome, allowing time to make more considered choices is a step in the right direction. Ensuring that meetings are always separated by 10/15 minute gaps (aside from any travel time between locations) would be a step in the right direction.

Studies have identified that lack of time inhibits healthier food choices. In one EU wide study not only was lack of time was the most frequently mentioned reason for not following nutritional advice (24% of total EU sample), particularly amongst the young and well educated.

Not feeding obsession

But balance is also about not feeding obsession. Office environments where the fridge is full of the latest ultra-low GI, gluten/carb free superfood are, potentially, no more healthy than those occasionally besmirched by Krispy Kremes.

From the employee perspective, balance can also include making less healthy choices but for the right reasons. Says Ben: “If you’ve had a busy day and don’t arrive home until 9pm, preparing a meal from scratch may mean you don’t eat until really late and go to bed on a full stomach. Under those circumstances, a decent ready meal that lets you digest your food and get to bed a little earlier may be the best option.”

As part of the Energy & Motivation workshops Ben delivers to Bec Development clients, he talks to delegates about tuning in to what their bodies need and understanding the difference between nutrients and stimulants. A large coffee and some chocolate might get you through that presentation but your body will still be crying out for something to eat.

Ben also talks about the body’s ultradian rhythms, these micro-rhythms that play out through the day and night within the broader sleep/wake cycle and where the body seeks a 20-minute period of recovery after every 90 minutes of activity.

From the employer perspective this can be as simple as tapping into and enhancing the opportunities that present themselves naturally and traditionally drew people to the water cooler or the coffee machine. Quiet rooms, mindfulness and meditation delivered at points during the working day and putting herbals teas next to the Java can actually enhance productivity as well as overall mental health.

Time & space

As well as time and space to eat during the working day, employers can look at simple changes in in-office vending machine contents and even how to embrace the obligatory office birthday cake. “A piece of cake can be really enjoyable but what if five people have a birthday in the same week?” ponders Ben “How about a really nice birthday cake provided once a month for everyone who has a birthday in that month? Make a thing of it.”

Space to eat away from work spaces and desktops is also important. “Not only is eating at your desk unhygienic it’s really stressful and stress stops us digesting out food properly,” says Ben. And while providing a working lunch may seem positive, it would be better eaten after or before a meeting rather than during it.

Stress impaired digestion means employees who may be both sluggish and malnourished after lunch, concurs Caroline. “Even if they eat healthily, they are not digesting their food, so this is not nourishing them. This can lead to gut health issues and gut health links to immune health and mental health.”

Caroline encourages employers to “promote a culture of the importance of lunch break”. Lunch breaks can also broker better relationships amongst employees and provide natural opportunities for newer employers ease into the office rhythm.

Simple but not easy

Caroline’s own offering for Bec Development clients includes food workshops and tasting sessions, health coaching, inspirational talks and team events.

“Optimal health is simple to achieve: maximise the right input (nutrients, hydration, oxygen), minimise the upsets (stress, toxins, infections) and prioritise healthy choices (sleep, relaxation, exercise, relationships). But it’s not easy to achieve, as we’re consumed by fast-paced urban lifestyle, filled with constant demands and expectations from employer, family and society in general.”

“Employers need to be part of the conversation,” says Ben. “It’s about encouraging awareness but also embracing variety and balance and understanding that food is part of that picture.”

Helen Tiffany

Helen Tiffany is founder and Managing Director of Bec Development, a leading business learning provider. In 2018 she developed and launched a programme of wellbeing and mental health workshops and initiatives; designed to raise employee and employer awareness of mental health and encourage healthy conversations, develop a better understanding of the indicators and issues and help create more balanced and accepting workplace environments and cultures. She is also founder and MD of The Coach House, a specialist coaching and coach training company and one of the few Master Executive Coaches in the UK.

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