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Envision a Mindful Eating Culture at Work

More than you may realize, you can shape your environment for enhanced wellbeing.

busy cafeteria with workers
If your workplace doesn't support mindful food practices, you may have to create them.
If your workplace doesn’t support mindful eating practices, look for the microsteps that will help you and your colleagues create better choices. (Photo courtesy of Toa Heftiba / Unsplash)

Consciously Create a Healthy-At-Work Culture

At many workplaces, employees consider the “healthy” time of day to be after work when they know they can finally hit the gym and sit down for a decent meal. However, Lynn Rossy, Ph.D., President of The Center for Mindful Eating and Executive Director of Tasting Mindfulness says we need to shift our thinking around wellness and the workday. 

Rossy offered this reality check: “No! We spend half of our lives at work! If we’re not healthy there, we can’t make up for it after work.” 

Given our current food environment, employers and workers have to make a conscious effort to create this culture. Mindful eating at work requires us to create conditions to enjoy the kinds of foods that give us lasting energy throughout the day—generally speaking, whole and unprocessed foods. 

Mindful eating at work can be tough. 

Boulder Psychotherapist Lesley Glenner said mindful eating presents new challenges to each of us daily. Glenner said we often struggle with, “What’s the temptation of the day, when everyone’s eating donuts or ordering in lunch? How will I deal with this today, when food feels like my reward for being here?”
 

Challenges of Mindful Eating at Work  

During a mindful eating webinar, Rossy surveyed 90 employees to identify their biggest challenges to eating well. Employees offered many reasons they reserve a health focus until work ends, including: 

• Perceived lack of time.
• Using food to relieve stress or boredom.
• Lack of access to high-quality, wholesome food.
• Obstacles of shared treats (temptations high in sugar, low in nutritional value). 

Rossy said stress, in particular, is a big reason for mindless eating. However, she pointed out, “You don’t get rid of stress until you are 6 feet under. Stress is a part of life. We have it every day, so the question is, how can we learn to deal with it skillfully?” She emphasized, “Mindless eating doesn’t get rid of the stress. It often adds another level of stress—that of overeating.” 

When people say they are too busy and overwhelmed to practice mindfulness or mindful eating, Rossy responds, “Those are the people who particularly need it.” 

Why Employers and Managers Should Care

“Presenteeism,” or showing up for work mentally or physically ill, hinders productivity. In fact, an American Productivity Audit estimated this be a $150 billion problem. Common ailments as hay fever, headaches, and even heartburn affect our ability to work and the productivity lost may cost companies than other health-related costs. This can be mitigated through promotion of worker engagement and support for healthy behaviors. 

Well-designed corporate wellness programs have been shown to enhance overall productivity and office morale. However, some employers have offered ill-conceived weight loss promotions. These really backfire in some cases, proving actually detrimental to employees’ mental health and promoting unhealthy behaviors that ultimately demoralize the workforce. 

Rossy said, “Focusing on weight is not only ineffective but — importantly — counterproductive and shaming. Increasingly, we’re understanding that the link between weight loss and health is weak. To me, it’s clear that those strategies have not made sense.” 

She added, “Asking employees to weigh in is horrible! Weight loss contests often lead to crash diets and destructive behaviors. If employers are really concerned about heath, there are many strategies they can use and promoting weight loss is not one of them.” 

Non-diet approaches have proven to be more favorable in helping people with their eating, body acceptance and health. They work by engaging employees in specific behaviors that promote overall wellbeing rather than weight loss. 

Wellbeing is promoted through breaks, encouraging physical activity during the day, allowing a decent lunch time and a chance to go outdoors, among other steps. 

Rossy emphasized, “If a business is claiming to promote health but offers employees no breaks or time to take lunch, then it is not going to be effective and making it hard for employees to succeed at improving their health.” 

Poor Office Culture? You Can Practice Mindful Eating Anyway

Sharing food can be a wonderful practice, but Rossy notes that generally food brought into the office is high in sugar and fat — such as a batch of cookies. The thought is often, “I’ll bring it to work so I don’t have to have it at home to tempt me.” While there is nothing wrong with having a cookie, relying on them to relieve your stress, won’t be helpful for you or your co-workers. 

Regardless of how colleagues or company management addresses wellness, employees should do activities to feel empowered and not use an ‘unhealthy office culture’ as a reason for giving in to the established norms.  

Rossy advises, “If your company doesn’t do for you, you need to do it for yourself.” 

She added, “Employees have a lot more choices to engage in healthy behavior than they might believe.They sometimes make choices based on an internal pressure to fit in or a belief that they will be perceived as not working hard enough (for instance, when they take a break and others are working). In reality, when you choose to be more skillful at work, you are giving others a chance to join you on the path to wellbeing.” 

People who say they are “too busy” or “too overwhelmed” to practice mindfulness or mindful eating during the workday may benefit from it most. (Photo courtesy of j / Unsplash)

What you can do:
• Create structure in your life that supports your health.
• Practice blocking out uninterrupted time for yourself each day.
• Put meditation on your list.
• Be aware of your focus and screen time.
• Step into your power about what you can and cannot do. 

Additionally, Glenner, the therapist quoted earlier, suggested that a guiding question employees can ask themselves to evoke a healing mindset is simply, “How will I take care of myself today?” 

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