Office cake culture: getting the balance right

04 February 2019

Office cake culture has been described as a ‘health hazard’ by at least one leading medical professional.1 But some office workers have defended the tradition as uplifting, sociable and good for team morale.2 So as a manager or employer, how can you get the balance right when it comes to cakes and sweet treats?

A good first step is to understand where the health warnings about office cake culture are coming from and then consider the other perspective – why employees love having a cake desk around. With both of these views in mind, you should be able to strike a good balance that promotes better health without taking the treats away.

Health risks of office cake culture

  • The Royal College of Surgeons has warned that too much sugar in the workplace is contributing to tooth decay and obesity in adults.3
  • Sugary foods provide a brief boost of energy, followed by a slump, which may not be the best result for productivity. Healthier snacks, such as those that include wholegrains or healthier types of fat, provide a much more sustained energy lift.4
  • If a colleague is trying to be good with their eating, a slice of cake might have a knock-on effect on their choice of food for the rest of the day. Juliet Hodges, Senior Adviser in the Behavioural Insights Team at Bupa, explains: “This is sometimes referred to by psychologists as the ‘what the hell’ effect. When we have a goal – say to eat healthy – but slip up, it can make us feel justified in abandoning the goal for the day. So someone might give in to a slice of cake, and then think ‘well I might as well order a takeaway tonight’.”

The upsides of office cake culture

  • Stopping work to have some treats can be sociable and provide a chance for team bonding. In high-stress working environments, a break for cake may offer a brief respite and improve mood and morale in the office.
  • Providing treats can be a way for managers to show their appreciation, reward performance, or celebrate a special occasion such as a colleague’s birthday. It may be a small gesture, but it can contribute to people feeling valued and comfortable at work.

Changing the balance

  • You might have noticed that the ‘upsides’ section above mostly revolves around food bringing people together. This doesn’t necessarily rely on that food being cake. Why not opt for healthier alternatives next time you stock the cake desk, vending machines or the staff canteen? Fruit, plain nuts and olives are all good options.3
  • Look at whether you can spread out cake-eating sessions a bit more. If three people have their birthdays in one week, could you mark the occasions jointly on a Friday rather than having three days of cakes?3
  • Try to hold cake breaks around lunchtime – people may eat less, and it’ll also be better for their teeth. Regular snacking means our teeth come under attack from bacteria more often, while concentrating eating around mealtimes gives them more of a break.3
  • Reposition the cake tray. Studies have shown that workers are more likely to eat sweets and cake regularly if they’re visible from their desk! The same goes for the position of treats in the staff canteen.3 Juliet advises: “Research suggests that even just moving treats further away (or sitting further away yourself) could have a positive impact, even if they’re still visible, because of the perceived effort to get them.”

Bupa has more information about healthy eating that you may find useful.


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