How does your diet affect the way you work?

27 January 2016 -


They say an army marches on its stomach, but a manager also needs sustenance to survive and thrive

Guest blogger Adrian Furnham

Food is a hot topic: pun intended.

See all the debate about the “sugar tax” and how wicked manufacturers are responsible for the obesity epidemic. It is a political, educational and dietary ‘hot potato’.

What of the religious minefield that food represents? Worse what of galloping allergies and the shadow of compensation lawyers who are eager to sue the organisation for not serving nutless nibbles at a Christmas party? All too hot to handle?

Is food at work a much less contentious issue? Some organisations have canteens; some a few machines, many leave people to fend for themselves. Some come to a cosy relationship with a restaurant chain. That is, within the building, beyond the guard posts, there is a small franchised restaurant selling a limited number of items they have learnt are popular with the inmates.

Normal prices but just very convenient.

The statistics of people grabbing a sandwich at lunch are surprising. Most people, it seems, multi-task with nosh. They eat and email at the same time. Crumbs clog keyboards. People do cold food, fast food, old food. They do it quickly. The very opposite of the French approach.

Does it matter? Does food really have an impact on performance? If it does, how and what should organisations do about it? What of the busy knowledge worker who arrives at work having downed two cokes at the station and who keeps going on a chocolate bar till they grab a quick sarnie at midday? Is mood or cognitive performance affected?

There are three aspects of food that are important at work:

Cognitive and Physical Performance

Food is fuel. We need it to perform. People starved of food and water for whatever reason make mistakes, are slower and less efficient. Studies by nutritionists have shown the relatively quick and powerful effects of various types of food on performance.

Lack of food or poor quality food can be extremely demoralising.

We know that an army marches on its stomach. We know that hungry people make less good decisions. Restaurants usually encourage their staff to eat before serving their guests.

One well-known construction business became famous because the founder had the belief the men worked harder and better after a good breakfast. Thus the day began by each worker being given a free hearty breakfast that helped manual labourers do their best work early in the day.

Some tasks require stamina; others concentration.

Listen to athletes speak about the role of food on their performance. Why do knowledge workers think so little about it?

Social effects

We are social animals. We know the symbolic power of the family meal, the last supper, the gala dinner. We celebrate with food. Feasts are held at weddings, and sometimes funerals.v

We chat, mingle and relax over food and drink.

One supermarket chain tried to determine what factors related best to the morale of the organisation as a whole. It turned out to be the canteen: size, comfort, private zones, quality and quantity of hot food.

You meet people over food. The days are gone of the executive dining room. Wise managers use lunch as an opportunity to mingle; test the temperature under amiable conditions. Contact is made in non-threatening circumstances.

Mood Effects

Mood influences behaviour in powerful but subtle ways and all shops know this. They use smells to make customers feel ‘Christmassy’. The smell of coconut shampoo puts people in a carefree holiday mood.

People trying to sell houses have fresh flowers or get the smell of good coffee wafting through the house. Better still, give them a hot drink and they feel warmer about the house.

Observe people before, during and after lunch. Their mood changes, often from irritated to relaxed, frenetic to chilled. Mood has an impact on others and that is why it is important.

But it is diet rather than individual meals that has a real impact: diets don’t work but lifestyle changes do. There is no such thing as junk food, only the way people eat a balanced diet or not. Personal diet is a function of many things - religion, education, culture – but most often habit and availability. Organisations can play an important part in this.

The present government is trying to ‘nudge’ rather than dictate. They might consider tax relief for organisations which provide subsidised good food to eat on the premises. Good for the organisation and good for the government itself in the long run.

Yet for some all this is again a sign of political correctness, the “nanny state” and attempts to deny us some personal freedom. Surely as a responsible adult I can choose what I eat, where I eat and when I eat within the constraints of the business?


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