The pandemic has changed many aspects of daily life, but one of the most influential of these is that of the workplace. The phenomenon of teleworking has changed the way people work in many sectors across the world, and the impacts of this filter into other parts of our lives, such as health and nutrition. This was the issue discussed in yesterday’s webinar, organised by Edenred, entitled, ‘Investing in workplace nutrition and employees’ well-being: still a concern for companies with the increase of teleworking?‘ A question to which the overwhelming response was yes. Yes it is.
During this Policies & Practicies session, the panel discussed the impacts of the current crisis on workers’ eating habits and how teleworking practices may change nutrition modes, the link between nutrition and physical state, psychosocial risks and work productivity, and the urgent need for companies to support workers’ access to food during the working day and to other benefits easing their life, even in remote working conditions.
1. Employee health and wellbeing
Manal Azzi, Senior Occupational Safety and Health Specialist at the International Labour Organisation, discussed how our working habits influence all our other habits and routines and that the pandemic has triggered such change to the world of work, and it won’t be the same again. An increase in people working from home has altered eating habits, with lockdowns leading to a rise in people overeating and eating unhealthily. The uncertain climate has taken a toll on many and the link between unhealthy lifestyles, mental health issues and physical health issues must be recognised. We need to maintain a good quality of life for everyone going forward, and to do that we need to understand the situation we are in. We weren’t ready for this mass move to teleworking and the evidence of that has come out in the form of more mental health issues; the Covid-19 pandemic is in fact a mental health pandemic.
It is the responsibility of organisations to ensure their workers remain healthy despite their style of work changing so much.Manal Azzi, Senior Occupational Safety and Health Specialist at the International Labour Organisation
2. The right to disconnect
Teleworking has caused many negative repercussions among workers, and studies conducted in the first few months of the pandemic showed teleworkers in Europe as being far more likely to work over the 48 hours weekly limit. MEP Alex Agius Saliba, member of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs and co-chair of the European Parliament Integroup MEP Alliance for Mental Health, argued that regulation at EU level would be useful to preserve the mental health of workers and a new updated EU framework is needed in todays digital reality. His legislative initiative the right to disconnect was recently voted through in European Parliament.
3. Workplace nutrition: “food is energy, energy is work!”
Of course a key part in this healthier workforce is nutrition. Whilst telework and flexiwork during the pandemic has improved diets among some workers, spending more time preparing healthier food and eating home produced meals which tend to be lower in calories and higher in nutrients than bought food, it has also restricted access to fresh food. Studies show an increase in bad habits among those working from home, such as snacking or eating more meals, eating in front of computers, and shortening leisure, rest and physical activity time. Commutes, which often offer exercise or are combined with exercise during the day (for example gym sessions after lunch) have stopped, and a sedentary lifestyle with too much screentime is often associated with unhealthier eating habits. Employers should be worried for the wellbeing of their workers, as the these lifestyle changes will have direct negative impacts on the workforce in the future. We need to prepare for the future and discuss new teleworking habits directly alongside nutrition, whilst promoting healthier lifestyles. In summary, we cannot discuss the future of teleworking without discussing the health and nutrition of workers.
Christopher Wanjek is a freelance health and science writer and author of Food at Work: Workplace Solutions for Malnutrition, Obesity and Chronic Diseases. Speaking on the panel he underlined that investing in workplace nutrition and employees’ well-being should definitely still be a concern for companies with the increase of teleworking, adding “food is energy, energy is work!” Better access to better food leads to higher morale, productivity and employee retainment among other benefits and is just sound business practice.
4. Canteen culture in danger
As we are now, the workplace canteen is in danger, will it return? Meanwhile meal vouchers are increasingly harder to use as intended because of people’s altered working routines and locations. However, the need for good nutrition hasn’t gone away, so how can we continue to meet this important need? Wanjek highlights the two essential aspects of workplace nutrition; social and biological. More than just a meal, people enjoy relaxing and socialising, networking with peers over meals at work, and we’ve lost this. Employers now have no idea what, when or where their employees are eating, so they can no longer ensure the setting or quality of the meal, even though it is in their own interest to ensure the good quality of this.
5. The potential of meal voucher schemes
If teleworking is the new normal, we need to find a way for employers to meet both the social and biological needs of workers, and one way to do this is to expand the popular food voucher schemes, such as those by Edenred. Meal voucher schemes encourage foot traffic in areas populated by offices, and expanding these vouchers to other types of shops encourages a diverse community of different businesses. This also has the potential to encourage teleworkers to get out, exercise, enjoy different types of meals and socialise, as well as bring economic benefits from increased foot traffic in the area. The food voucher system was first developed in the UK after the world wars, during which worker canteens were destroyed, in an effort to boost the economy, which it did. Comparing the situation back then with the one we face now, and the scheme once again has the potential to help. We must develop a scheme that gets teleworkers out and about, for their physical and mental wellbeing but also the community’s economic health.
Additionally, low income workers are more effected by the negative effects of the pandemic, and the voucher scheme is an effective way of alleviating this, as well as the gap in food security and inequality. Meal vouchers encourage workers, whatever their income, to choose healthy food rather than opting for unhealthier options simply because of budget, and the more this is supported the more we can help have a positive impact on people’s diet and lifestyle. Taking this concept further, vouchers for services such as childcare also have the potential to help greatly in encouraging a healthy lifestyle, by buying employees time so that they can spare more time for leisure, social and relaxation activities and lead a better, healthier lifestyle, regardless of their income. Teleworking needs to be adapted to the job, the worker and the situation, and employers need to listen to the circumstances in order to meet the needs of their employees and ensure their health, wellbeing and ability to do their job the best they can.