When I was planning my research into office cake culture for my MSc in obesity and weight management, cake-related discussions with friends and colleagues often led to the same full and frank discussion.
Some argued that office cake is a sugar-laden menace lying in wait to trip up would-be dieters and hapless healthy eaters. Many felt that any ensuing weight gain carries health risks for individuals and reduced productivity for employers. The counter-argument was that office cake provides a valuable chance for colleagues to take a break, catch up with colleagues and share ideas, all vital for mental health and wellbeing.
With no data available, there was no way to know who was closer to the truth on this emotive topic. And without data it has been hard for employers to know whether or how to respond.
In fact, the research results suggest there’s merit in both positions and, more importantly, both provide insights that could help improve workplace health and wellbeing, physical and mental.
The research surveyed almost 1000 UK office workers about their attitudes, habits and opinions around workplace cake culture. Cake was available to most respondents (86%) at least ‘once or twice a week’. 31% said office cake had contributed to weight gain, 38% said it made it harder to eat healthily in the workplace and 59% said it made it harder to stick to a weight loss diet. Round one to the ‘office cake is bad’ camp.
But. 61% thought office cake was a good thing, 81% said it brings people together and 83% said it cheers people up. Round two to the ‘office cake is good’ camp.
So how often did the respondents think we should have office cake? This is the ‘wow!’ piece of data which I think could lead to some real improvement in workplace health. Almost all respondents (95%) said the ideal frequency for office cake was once a week or less. 41% said once a month.
Make workplace cake special again
To recap, the evidence is telling us that workplace cake affects many people’s efforts to eat healthily at work and control their weight, yet it also provides a popular way to boost morale and build relationships. But, however they felt about it, almost all respondents thought having office cake once a week or less would be enough.
Add all this together and what have we got?
The evidence suggests we could reduce workplace health risk and enhance social benefits while having office cake just once a week. And it seems this would be acceptable to the vast majority of employees.
To make this work we’d need small changes to the way office cake happens at most workplaces. For example, displaying cakes all day on a table in the main working area (as happens for nearly three quarters of respondents) encourages mindless grazing and doesn’t provide the social benefits people enjoy. Instead, choose a day and time for cake every week/month/whatever people agree. Until cake time, keep the cakes out of sight (and out of mind) in opaque cake tins, in cupboards. When cake o’clock has passed, pack the cakes away. This would make cake special again, a treat to look forward to, and encourage social interaction.
More confidence for employers
This research investigated the opinions of office workers so might not translate to other working environments. Even so, I hope it gives organisations the confidence to at least start a conversation among colleagues so they can explore their own cake culture. There is a strong chance they will realise they are all in the “office cake is great, but once a week is enough” camp. Then they might feel able to discuss ways to make this happen. Supportive management can encourage and endorse but won’t need to regulate.
Develop a culture of health in the workplace
In 2013, the World Health Organisation calculated we spend two thirds of our waking hours at work. So a healthy working environment would make a significant contribution to overall public health. And starting a conversation about office cake culture is a giant step in a healthier direction.