Googling Cafeterias for Employee Wellness

Some companies are stirring up their employees by trying to tell them how much they should weigh and penalizing those who don’t meet the bar. But it’s worth a look at the very different practices of a top tier employer like Google. And what you’ll find is Google putting its energy into into a healthy workplace and a culture that models healthy behaviors, rather than telling employees how much they should weigh. Behavioral economists will tell you that nudges generally work better than scolds. So in Google cafeterias you’ll find employee wellness nudges that people appreciate, in the form of high quality food that promotes health and cues that lead people to make better choices.

Says Jenifer Kurkoski, who runs Google’s HR department of People Analytics, “When employees are healthy, they’re happy. When they’re happy, they’re innovative.”

Early on, Google found that their free cafeterias had some unintended consequences for the health and weight of their employees. Prompted at least in part by employee concerns, Google directed the talents of its people like Kurkoski, with a PhD in organizational behavior, to crafting a healthier environment. Here are a few examples of simple changes that are making a substantial difference.

Hard candy is no longer front and center in clear dispensers. The M&Ms are still there, but you have to reach into opaque bins. Gone are the cues to grab a handful of empty calories.

Fresh salads are the first thing you see when you enter the cafeteria, cueing people to fill their plates with the healthy stuff first. Desserts can be found, but require more effort.

Smaller plates provide cues for smaller portions. Little messages where people pick up their plates remind them that people with bigger dishes eat more, but leaving the choice to the individual. Small plate use increased by 50%.

Color cues in Google cafeterias give the green light to veggies and a red light to high-caloric-density desserts, using a simple tagging system.

Desserts come in smaller portion sizes — generally just three bites — to give people the option for treats in small doses.

Water has been given the prime real estate in coolers at eye level, while sweetened beverages are out of sight on the bottom. Water consumption is up by 47% and calories from sweetened drinks are down by 7%.

This kind of strategy is what techies call open source software — employers can find plenty of resources for implementing it freely. And nudging employees toward healthier behaviors takes a lot less energy that starting a fight about how much they should weigh.

Click here and here to read more about Google’s cafeterias and employee wellness strategies, click here to read a systematic review of worksite interventions for excess weight and obesity, and click here to access worksite obesity prevention recommendations from the Harvard School of Public Health.

Navy Chow Is the Best, image © National Archives / Wikimedia

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