Healthy eating in the workplace: boost the vitality of employees

"Nearly 1 in 2 Belgians are overweight." Bad news for employees, because fit employees feel more energetic, are generally more productive and take less time off work as well. With targeted measures you can encourage a healthy lifestyle and boost productivity in your organisation.

What’s going on?

The cause of these alarming figures: a lack of exercise and, above all, an unbalanced diet. Indeed, almost 2 out of 3 people questioned in the 2018 Health Survey do not eat enough fruit and vegetables. Furthermore, 38% eat sweet or savoury snacks daily and 10% drink sugary soft drinks every day. Also, the number of Belgians suffering from chronic illness, such as diabetes, high blood pressure or a poor cholesterol ratio, is increasing.

Our figures tell the same tale: the Mensura study conducted among over 185,000 employees confirms an average BMI of 26.5. One and a half points above what is considered healthy.


Although BMI is a good health indicator, we should not become too fixated on it. Someone with a higher BMI may be fit and healthy, while an unhealthy lifestyle is not always reflected in a higher BMI.

Also a concern for employers

“Although employees still decide for themselves when it comes to food and exercise, as an employer it is still worth actively encouraging them to make healthy choices”, says Dr Dorien Simons, prevention specialist ergonomics and vitality expert at Mensura.

“For example, a lunch that is rich in sugar and/or fat can cause an ‘afternoon dip’. In other words, employees feel dozy and are less productive. If they eat a healthy and balanced meal, on the other hand, – whether or not in the company restaurant – they will be all set for an energetic and productive afternoon.

The effects of food can also be felt in the long term. Overweight employees are more at risk of serious and chronic illness and are less fit and energetic than colleagues who are a healthy weight. Also, the fact that obesity has an impact on work absence has been demonstrated many times.

However, there is good news too: signs of early illness related to obesity can still often be reversed with a healthy lifestyle. Healthy eating habits between the ages of 40 and 60 can still bring many health benefits. In other words, it is never too late to adopt a more healthy lifestyle.”

Risk sectors

In some sectors, overweight employees are in the majority. This goes beyond the branches that feature many sitting professions, such as the government and transport sector. Strangely enough, construction and industry also appear in the top 4 with the largest number of overweight employees. 

The reason? Employees in these sectors overestimate how much exercise they do and its impact on their body weight. Furthermore, they often have an unhealthy diet, increasing the risk of obesity. 

Shift workers are also more likely to suffer obesity, and again this concerns a number of sectors. Our figures confirm this as well: in the construction industry, 70% of the employees working shifts are overweight, compared to 63% of those working normal hours. Similarly, in the chemical industry (60% compared to 55%) and the hotel and catering trade (50% compared to 45%), there is a remarkable difference between employees who work shifts and those who do not. The fact that their working hours fluctuate – sometimes days, sometimes nights – upsets their biorhythm and leads to irregular eating patterns, and they also allow less time for exercise.

Encouraging healthy eating in the workplace: 3 tips

As an employer you also reap the rewards when your employees do sufficient exercise and have a healthy diet. Dutch research via the sustainable employability platform ‘Over Duurzame Inzetbaarheid’ has identified that a healthy employee is 1% more productive which, in a company with 100 healthy employees, can represent an average annual turnover increase of €95,000.

But how do you encourage your employees to eat healthily? These tips will put you on the right track.

1. Provide healthy food and drink at work

Free water and a bowl with a selection of fruit are essential alternatives to soft drinks and calorific snacks. Also, take a close look at the menu in the company restaurant. Consider fresh soup, wholegrain options, vegetables, vegetarian dishes and healthy desserts. And perhaps: offer fruit for free, after all, it is even tax deductible.

Dorien: “Put the fruit bowl next to the coffee machine. Indeed, employees will often stand there waiting for a few minutes, take a break and talk to a colleague. This means they will be more likely to take an apple. At the same time, put the coffee machine – and the fruit bowl – a little further away from the workspace and you will automatically encourage people to do more exercise. In this way you can provide a slice of healthiness.”

2. Make sure you have a common dining area.

When colleagues are around, 1 in 10 employees will eat slower and more healthily, which will make them feel satisfied more quickly. And there are still plenty of other reasons why food at your desk is unhealthy.

3. Inform your employees about food

Unhealthy eating is often a matter of being uninformed. With info brochures, sessions, and/or stands you can make your employees aware of their (bad) eating habits. This kind of info can be displayed in e.g. the common dining area.

Dorien: “Of course, you can also make it more informal. For example, ask employees for their favourite healthy recipes and compile these in a booklet that is then distributed at work. In this way, employees actually inform each other, and you create support for healthy eating throughout the organisation.”