Sweet treats don't aid engagement and motivation

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As the FDS calls for an end to workplace 'cake culture' experts warn of its limited motivational effects

Sweet treats have a limited effect on engagement and motivation, according to health and wellbeing (H&W) experts responding to a call from The Faculty of Dental Surgery (FDS) to end ‘workplace cake cultures'.

Andy Dodman, chief HR and corporate officer at the University of Sheffield and co-founder of the university’s H&W subsidiary Everyday Juice, said that for low-value rewards to have impact they need to be personalised.

“Perhaps like most workplaces, we seem to have an abundance of cakes, sweets and other treats for staff to enjoy. They are either brought in by colleagues who are celebrating their birthdays or purchased by managers as a way of thanking staff for a job well done,” he told HR magazine. “But I would challenge the effect this homogenous treat has on staff engagement and motivation.

“My experience is that low-value rewards have greater impact when they are chosen specifically for an individual or team based on their personal preferences. It’s even better when an individual can choose their own reward from a suite of options. Such options may well include the indulgent bottle of fizz, a box of chocolates and the like, but should also encourage other possibilities such as a day in the gym or spa. Encouraging choice and variety is the key.”

Kirsten Samuel, managing director at employee wellbeing consultancy Kamwell, agreed that choice is key to motivation. “Ask employees what they’d actually like as treats on a Friday afternoon – you’ll be surprised by the responses,” she advised.

The FDS’s assertion that ‘cake culture’ is having a significant impact on the nation’s obesity levels and the state of its oral health and productivity is not the first call of this kind it has made. At the organisation’s annual dinner last June dean of the FDS at the Royal College of Surgeons Nigel Hunt said workplace temptations stop people losing weight.

Additionally, a study in Food, Culture & Society: An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research, published last August, criticised the emergence of ‘food altars’. The research suggested stress was a key factor in poor work diets.

“Treats are used as a way of celebrating and as a reward for good work – but actually more so as a means of coping with stress and everyday pressures,” confirmed Samuel.

“When we’re stressed our bodies release a hormone that tells the brain we need a boost of energy. The quick fix is to eat anything full of carbohydrates. Bad feelings like anger and frustration will seem to melt away because the sugar and new energy makes us feel better in the short term. But it also affects our blood sugar balance, making us more susceptible to mood swings. Over time we become more reliant on sugary foods to help us deal with stress and uncomfortable situations.”

Dodman added that another reason 'cake culture' typically fails to motivate and engage is that eating treats is actually a solo activity.

“People tend to consume treats on their own at their desk,” he pointed out. “Any reward that encourages staff to share their experiences together would be better. For example, we provide complementary afternoon tea in the staff restaurant for small teams. Such events are a great way to recognise performance but also advocate social connectivity and wellbeing.”

Speaking on what the HR team at Fletchers Solicitors have found helpful in boosting staff morale, head of people Sara Duxbury told HR magazine: “One initiative we've found particularly effective is providing all staff with a pedometer. It appealed to their competitive spirits and encouraged them to be more active in the day.

"We are also introducing our wellbeing voucher scheme later this month," she added. "Under this scheme staff can nominate a colleague they feel deserves a reward or who has been dealing with a stressful time. These staff members will then receive a voucher from the firm and will be rewarded with a pamper or beauty session, or another type of relaxing activity."

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