Are your colleagues a good or bad influence on your health?

by Ali on March 31, 2008

If you’ve worked in several different jobs, you may have noticed interesting patterns. One place of work might have a constantly topped-up cookie jar. In a different office, perhaps everyone gets together on Fridays for a pub meal. And in a third, you might find a trend towards snacking on fruit or eating salads at lunch time.

It’s unlikely that the HR department is particularly prone to employing people with an love of carrot sticks in one company, or a tendency to bring in cake in another. Rather, we tend to match our eating habits to the people around us – and for many of us, the people we spend most time around are our colleagues.

“Everyone loves pizza” – Coping with fattening team lunches

What can you do if your regular team lunch involves someone nipping down to the nearest pizzeria? My advice would be to simply join in! Sitting there with a wholemeal sandwich and an apple will feel awkward, make other people uncomfortable, and is hardly conductive to team bonding. And demanding that “We should order something healthy for a change” is unlikely to go down well with whippet-thin colleagues who can’t understand what all the fuss is about.

Limit the damage by making sure you have a healthy breakfast and some fruit mid-morning, so that you’re not ravenous by lunch-time, and by planning a lighter evening meal.

“It’s Friday so it’s pub time!” – Is that weekly lunch out setting back your diet?

Does everyone in your office troops to the pub on Fridays for lunch, to celebrate the weekend being just a few hours away? If you tend to end up eating far more than you need (and perhaps indulging in a sneaky glass of wine or pint of beer too), you might find it best to limit these trips.

I find that disappearing to the gym is a good excuse not to look like a spoilsport. Alternatively, plead work pressures (“You guys go to the pub, someone’s got to stay and cover the phones”). But do try to go along once or twice a month – especially if you rarely sit down to eat with your colleagues. It can be a good chance to chat, and there’s no rule saying you can’t be friends with your workmates.

“I’ve brought in some chocolates…” – Enjoying occasional treats without letting them become an everyday office indulgence

Many workplaces have an established pattern of bringing in treats. In my experience, one of the best health-wise is having a tin of cookies which people take it in turns to top-up as it runs low. This might seem counter-intuitive, but having sweet treats around constantly means that people are able to “take them or leave them”.

Commonly, though, colleagues will bring in treats on birthdays, or on return from vacation. This often leads to a mass feeding frenzy, as everyone in the office wants their share of the goodies. And you’ll not be Mister Popular if you insist on bringing in a fruit basket when it’s your turn…

If such treats are a fairly infrequent occurrence (perhaps a couple of times a month), go ahead and indulge, even if you’re on a diet. A single cupcake isn’t going to ruin your week. Just make sure you don’t fall into the “It’s free food and I want my fair share” mindset…

If it seems as though it’s someone’s birthday every other day, or if it’s the summer and people are constantly returning from abroad laden with exotic chocolates, you may need to ration yourself to only having one of these treats every week. Read my advice on how to refuse a cookie if you’re worried about hurting a co-worker’s feelings.

“Who’s coming for a walk?” – Have a positive influence on your colleagues

All of the above may sound a little negative, and I wanted to end by demonstrating how co-workers and an office environment conductive to healthy eating can have a very positive effect.

At one small company where I worked whilst a student, the office consisted mainly of enviably slim women. There was occasional cake on people’s birthdays, but not on a day-to-day basis. We had a well-equipped kitchen, and a break room where people ate together. There was a strong encouragement from senior members of staff for people to “take their full lunch break” and usually at least half the employees would go out for a walk together at lunch-time, through the grassy area around the buildings (we were based on a large business park.)

I noticed that people frequently brought salads in for lunch – especially the male employees (something which I’ve not seen happening in other places of work). One larger lady who was new to the company started a diet, and met with encouragement and support. To me, this was strong evidence that healthy living habits can spread between colleagues.

If you feel your office could have a healthier environment, why not invite colleagues out for a walk, or suggest sitting down for a proper lunch break together rather than grabbing a sandwich at your desk?

(Image of pizza above by Slice)

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