Why employers need green fingers: How to increase employee health and productivity using nudge

Imagine you have a large greenhouse (if you actually own a greenhouse think of that one) and inside it you are growing some tomato plants. You have your tomato plants neatly potted in some soil in various pots and are keenly looking forward to some tasty tomatoes. But, what can you do to ensure you get a great crop of tomatoes? Well, as all avid green thumb enthusiasts know, you need to nurture your plants and take care of them. To do this is quite simple, you must keep your plants watered, keep away any unwanted pests, ensure they get a lot of sunlight, and maintain the soil. By following these steps your tomato plants will become healthy and strong consequently producing some of the juiciest tomatoes your imagination can taste.

Now we are going to try and stretch your imagination a bit more – Imagine that your business/the place you work is the greenhouse in our first analogy and you/or your employees are the tomato plants. Got it? Right, then let’s continue. For you to produce the tastiest tomatoes, we shall call this your productivity, you have to have similar conditions that the plants require in the greenhouse. The conditions you require are quite simply food and water. Through this combination we can keep up our energy throughout the day and increase our levels of productivity (our tomatoes). However, one thing that we have failed to remember is that, just like the tomato plants, humans require a healthy balanced diet to achieve their maximum level of productivity. We are not a type of machine that can rely on any source of food for energy. We are delicate tomato plants, and too much unhealthy eating will produce smaller, milder tomatoes. And unfortunately, in a majority of work environments, and in a number of staff canteens you will find a greater incentive to provide unhealthy foods without providing healthy alternatives.


"employees with higher levels of BMI have significantly lower levels of productivity"


But why does this matter? Well, as a team of researchers discovered, the types of foods you eat in staff canteens have a huge influence on the types of food you eat outside of work. For instance, if you were to have chips for lunch from your staff canteen, you are more likely to include chips into your eating habits outside of work. This then culminates into constant unhealthy eating habits and can lead to a variety of health-related problems. Consequently, the unhealthier you/or your employees are the less productive they will be. For instance, researchers from the University of Leipzig, revealed that the higher your body mass index (BMI) the more sick days you are likely to take. This, for German businesses alone, results in costs of over 2 billion euros. Additionally, further research has discovered that, employees with higher levels of BMI have significantly lower levels of productivity. From this we can clearly see that, by constantly neglecting our need for a balanced diet, we are inhibiting our productive capabilities and, in turn, figuratively consuming higher costs. We need to be reminded that we are like tomato plants – we require the correct balance of food and water to produce our tasty crop of tomatoes.

But what can be done? After reading the last paragraph you may have already come up with a simple solution to the problem – place healthy foods in the canteen and just remove the unhealthy options. Whilst, adding healthy options to the canteen would be a good start I would disagree with removing the unhealthy foods. That’s because, humans are animals of habit and convenience. If we have always eaten chips for our lunch but the next time we enter the staff canteen and chips have been removed then we would simply become frustrated and angry and most probably ignore the healthy options on display. By removing old options and instating new ones you create an unconscious friction between the individual and the new option – and this is known as the cognitive bias loss aversion. We have stronger feelings towards losing something, that we already possess, than gaining something new. Simply put, we struggle with change. 


Utilise nudges

Another solution that you could implement would be a nudge. A nudge is when you change a behaviour by altering something in the physical, social, or psychological environment where that behaviour takes places. For instance, to encourage employees to choose apples over chocolate at a staff canteen you could simply move the apples closer to the till. By applying this nudge, you increase the convenience of the apples and in return make them more likely to be chosen.

Why implement a nudge? Nudges are often simple and cost-effective. You do not have to physically engage the mental willpower of employees and send them to a diet workshop; instead you simply alter the environment where they make their food choices. Additionally, with nudges, you do not remove the options that are already in place – the chips and other unhealthy foods remain in the staff canteen. You just ensure that the healthy food options are more salient (attractive) than the unhealthy food options.

How would I implement a nudge in our staff canteen? Nudges can have significant impact on the eating habits of individuals, especially in a canteen setting. For instance, a project that we recently completed, increased healthy food purchasing by over 500%. In that project, we used the principles of nudge to re-design a café’smenu – something you could also implement in your work canteen. Other forms of “healthy” nudges could be to reduce the size of the plates used. Utilising smaller plates will unconsciously influence an employee to take smaller portions of food, reducing the likelihood of overeating. Another example of a canteen nudge is to simplify the means of choosing healthy options (like a salad) – to accomplish this, utilise attractive coloured stickers, ensure salads can be easily reached and accessed, and use descriptive words like “fresh” and “succulent”.


"We are delicate tomato plants, and too much unhealthy eating will produce smaller, milder tomatoes."


There are many, many more nudges available to increase healthy eating in staff canteens but it is also important to state that, if you decide to utilise the power of nudge, you must consider the layout and context of your canteen. Nudges do not work as a simple “bandage that heals all wounds” intervention. You first need to explore and observe the eating habits of yourself/employees and design a nudge to fit. However, by utilising and designing “health” based nudges, you are starting to create a more health beneficial canteen that can lead to healthier lifestyles and consequently increase employee productivity. As we know from what we have previously explored, eating healthily and having a balanced diet go hand in hand with less sick days and more productivity – and by implementing nudges, we can achieve a healthier diet without restricting food options or having to drain an individual’s willpower. Leaving your employee refreshed, effectively refuelled, and ready to take on the rest of the work day.


NudgeUp research specialises in nudge based interventions for behaviour change at both community and business level. We tackle a variety of problems from health and wellbeing to productivity output, all through the application of behavioural insights. Contact us today to find out more. 

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