Famously, for Proust, it was a Madeleine dipped in tea that transported him back to “the old grey house on the street” and his childhood. For me, this Christmas, it was a dry, dusty biscuit that transported me to an old, grey office.
Someone offered me some especially arid shortbread, tasting faintly and bafflingly of aniseed, exploding into dust as soon as I bit into it. As I tried to separate my tongue from the roof of my mouth, I remembered a gloomy Wednesday afternoon, a tea run and a strong sense of ennui. I could see the “snack corner”: the stale holiday leftovers and PR freebies that collected dust and crumbs, next to the tottering pile of newspapers. I could remember the afternoons that seemed to last whole months, the slow, sad feeling that seeped into my bones and the inedible cakes and sweets I’d shove into my face simply for something to do. I thought of badly organised fridges, passive-aggressive notes, soup spilling in a microwave, cheap, warm prosecco in a blue-tinged plastic cup, a weekly slice of Colin The Caterpillar, Tesco tuna-mayonnaise sushi, grubby Tupperware, salt and vinegar rice cakes (with God as my witness, never again) and the way my colleagues would sit up like meerkats, peering over the top of computer monitors, asking, analysing, watching, judging and deciding what to eat next.
I don’t think I have ever eaten as badly or thought about food as often as I did when I worked in an office.
It’s well documented that most modern workplaces are hazardous for our health. Even if you’re not working late or dealing with dangerous equipment, we know that sitting for long periods, staring at screens and commuting could all be detrimental to wellness. The worse our health is, the less time we can spend at work, so it makes sense for our employers to tackle these problems. Some organisations, including Thames Water and the West Midlands Ambulance Service, are trying to promote the health of their employees by working with Slimming World and giving their employees the option of joining their local group for up to 12 weeks.
Joanne Allen, Slimming World’s head of health and wellbeing, told The Times: “Obesity can affect the physical health and emotional wellbeing of an employee and their ability to fulfil their potential… People who successfully lose weight often gain a huge boost in self-esteem. They become happier and more confident which can make them more effective at work.”
It doesn’t matter what you’re eating – and, sometimes, what you’re not eating – you are always within two metres of someone who has a strong opinion about it
Happy, confident workers probably aren’t reaching for the revolting, tasteless biscuits at 4pm, just because they need something to keep them going. The trouble is that many workplaces are not happy places and I doubt that sending staff to a diet class is going to change that in the long term. It is difficult to eat well if you feel obliged to work long hours and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t felt obliged at some point to stay at their desk beyond the contracted time, simply to show senior staff that they are serious about their work. Many employees travel a long distance to their work and they feel that it’s better to miss breakfast than to be five minutes late. Every so often, there is a campaign or movement to bring back lunch, to discourage people from eating at their desks and to take more breaks, but it’s not backed up by a plan to make sure that everyone has an hour less work to do every day.
Yet, in every single place that I have worked, food is a constant presence. More cakes and sweets arrive every day. They are used as rewards and motivators, for charity-fundraising activities and as gifts. Most of us have spent a panicky Sunday at a supermarket, buying sacks of Starmix after forgetting to pick up sweets on the way back from a holiday. We have all tried to turn down a piece of cake we didn’t really want to eat and then eaten it anyway, after the baker has made it clear that we would be hurting their feelings. It doesn’t matter what you’re eating – and, sometimes, what you’re not eating – you are always within two metres of someone who has a strong opinion about it, who wants to discuss it in depth. I believe that most workplaces foster a toxic eating culture and this needs to change as a matter of urgency. I’m concerned that a group weight-management programme, especially one in which dieters are permitted a limited number of “syns”, is akin to throwing a gallon of petrol on to an already raging bonfire.
There are ways that our employers could help us to make positive, effective changes to our health. They could commit to ensuring that we spend a full hour away from our desks during lunchtime and ensure that we have the facilities to buy or prepare healthy, affordable, filling food. They could make sure that none of their employees ever feel that being late is worse than skipping a meal. They could encourage conversations about mental health and make sure that we don’t feel as though it falls entirely to us to manage stress, pressure and anxiety.
For happier, healthier, more productive workers, you need to start with a company culture that never feels so toxic that staff feel they must self-medicate with three kilograms of Cadbury Dairy Milk every afternoon. Unless you make the happiness of your workers a priority, there is no point packing anyone off to Slimming World.