Health Nuts and Bolts

Don't be afraid to spoon-feed your employees tips about proper diet.

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If people are old enough to have jobs, they're old enough to decide for themselves what to eat, right? Yes, but there are still two reasons you might want to influence your employees' food choices. First is the relationship between eating habits and health-care costs; second is the impact of a healthy diet on employee productivity, says James O. Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado, Denver.

John C. Barrett believes his conscious efforts to encourage good eating habits among staff members contribute to all-around better employees. "The company benefits because you have a more solid, productive work force," says Barrett, 48, co-founder and senior vice president of Med Advantage, a professional credentials verification service in Orlando, Florida. "And the employees are happier, too." In the six years since he began actively promoting healthy eating habits to his employees, Barrett has seen punctuality improve, absenteeism drop and productivity and morale increase.

So how can you encourage your employees to adopt healthier eating habits both on and off the job? Begin by being a good role model. "You can't sit there eating your M&Ms, telling your employees to eat their broccoli," says Hill.

Also, talk to your employees and find out what healthy options they'd prefer. You may be surprised, says Hill, by the number of employees who have never complained but would appreciate having healthier food options in the workplace. He recommends offering up ideas--such as changing what's available in the vending machines or subsidizing the cost of healthy snacks--then asking for their input. 

Make it easy for employees to make their own healthy choices. Med Advantage has a large kitchen with several microwaves, a refrigerator, a sink and other meal preparation tools. "We encourage our employees to bring food from home instead of getting fast-food," says Barrett, whose company projects 2008 sales of $7 million.

Hill suggests contacting nearby restaurants that offer healthy food and asking them to provide discounts for your employees. You may need to offer some sort of reciprocal deal, but often restaurants will provide discounts because they know you'll be driving traffic their way.

Will you succeed in replacing every desktop candy dish with a bowl of apples? Probably not. And not every employee will appreciate your efforts. "I've had a couple of employees who basically said, ‘Butt out of my life,'" Barrett says. But most employees will welcome the changes, and often they'll return the favor. Recently, when Barrett started drinking coffee in the afternoon, one of his staffers brought him some green tea and suggested he try it instead. "She said, ‘It's better for you than coffee,'—and I actually like it better."

If you're going to start encouraging lifestyle changes of any kind, Barrett recommends taking it slow. "Try small doses at first and see what kind of reaction you get," he says. If the response is positive, take it up a notch.

Need more help? Your health insurance provider might have advice and programs you can use. You could also find a resource in local medical centers, which may offer nutritional consulting to companies and individuals as part of their community outreach efforts.

—By Jacquelyn Lynn

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