Back when your employees did their work from an office, eating was fairly routine: lunch happened on break, snacks might be had from the well-stocked vending machine or office fridge, cake meant it was a co-worker’s birthday.
But now that many employees are working from home to comply with COVID-19 social distancing guidance, that routine has gone out the window. They may be sitting mere feet from their kitchens — or even in their kitchens. Lunch breaks are blurry. Stress and anxiety may be fueling snack-a-thons.
When healthy eating suffers, it can impact things like energy levels, mental acuity, and productivity, says Jennifer Bruning, MS, RDN, LDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics.
On the flip side, “there is objective data that links healthy eating with being resilient, productive, and well,” said Ryan Wolf, physical well-being lead at Gallup. And those sound like fantastic traits to cultivate during a global pandemic. One study, in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, found that eating a healthier, less-inflammatory diet might have a protective effect against depression.
“There are a lot of things we can’t control right now,” says Renee Clerkin, a registered dietitian and nutritionist. “But food and nutrition can have a huge impact on how employees function and feel. That’s a win-win for everyone involved.”
And employees want the support. When e-commerce company Yotpo Inc. informally surveyed its newly remote employees, they found the team was interested in learning more about nutrition. But without break rooms to stock or meetings to cater, employers may have to rethink how they deliver nutrition resources to serve this new work-from-home normal.
Signal Its Importance
Send one email about healthy eating, and it will get lost in the inbox shuffle, Wolf says. Food and nutrition resources need their own dedicated space where your employees are able to find them. This could be as simple as a Slack or Teams channel or as elaborate as a dedicated microsite. Whatever you do, make sure your employees know it exists and how to get to it. That likely means periodic communications to remind employees of these resources, he points out. Nutrition might not be on someone’s radar the first week or month of working from home, but it might become more pressing as time passes.
Working from home also means managers won’t have visual cues for when their team members are on their lunch breaks, meaning they might unintentionally call and chat through the only half-hour break in a team member’s schedule. Employers should encourage teams to establish new norms around taking breaks. Maybe employees are allowed to put a hold on their calendar for their intended lunch break, or meetings are kept out of the noon hour. Let your employees know that it’s OK — and encouraged — for them to step away from their desk to keep themselves properly nourished.
Lean on Experts
If you offer an employee assistance program, now is the time to remind people about it, says Bruning. If they’ve never needed to access a nutritionist or mental health specialist before, they likely don’t remember that they can.
You may also be able to work with your health benefits provider to connect your employees to nutrition resources or other employer-sponsored health and wellness tools. And if your company offers a weight loss program, highlight it in your team communications, as some employees will be craving this assistance. (Real Appeal, for instance, features weekly coaching sessions and includes healthy recipes in its materials.)
“A session or two with a dietitian could greatly help employees during this time,” says Clerkin.
Send a Healthy Pick-Me-Up
If you treat your team to snacks or lunches when everyone is working in the office, why not continue the tradition from afar? “If a company has the resources, fresh fruit and other healthful snacks are a great idea,” says Bruning. One tech startup in Arlington, VA, mailed each employee a snack box filled with healthy options. Other companies are having healthy lunches delivered to employees’ homes.
A gift of healthy food does more than satisfy one meal: It can boost morale, keep employees feeling included in the company culture, and help lessen their worry around grocery shopping. If sending snacks or delivering lunch isn’t an option, consider creative alternatives, like sharing a recipe roundup for healthy lunch ideas, gift cards for cooking kits, or a month-long meal plan to make dinnertime less stressful.
Stoke Some Friendly Competition
Eating-better challenges can be a source of bonding for co-workers and help sustain people’s motivation when making a change. At the 90-person software firm NowSecure, the company’s Slack food channel hosts contests like “best video cooking demonstration” and “best use of leftovers.”
Prizes can add an extra level of incentive to participate (think: a week’s worth of meal kits delivered to their front door or a virtual session with a dietitian). But prizes don’t have to drain your budget to be effective. Team-wide recognition and bragging rights around the virtual water coolers can be motivation enough for employees to get involved.
Make It Social
Food doesn’t only nourish the body — it can feed social connections and bonds. The same can be true even when people aren’t eating in the same physical space, says Clerkin. Schedule a companywide lunch and learn with a registered dietitian, or bring in a chef for a virtual healthy home cooking class. Rather than rehashing the latest news endlessly, remind managers that they can make small talk about favorite recipes or healthy snack suggestions.
Combining nutritional resources with an opportunity for social connection can help employees feel even more supported.