Office snack rooms: Designed for health or keeping workers close?

At Bloomberg News’ offices in New York City and Washington, D.C., well-stocked food stations are a staple: Cereals, granola bars, hot chocolate, cookies, candy, soups, nuts, juices, vegetables and fruit are just some of the free offerings for the company’s many thousands of employees.

During orientation new hires are told that the stations are designed to encourage camaraderie and idea swapping. That’s the upside.

The flip side is that the snack stations discourage employees from leaving the office, tend to truncate breaks and result in weight gain for some new workers, according to an article about Bloomberg in the March/April 2011 issue of American Journalism Review.

When employers send the message that workers are free to do as they like during breaks -- whether that means staying at the office or venturing outside -- employees tend to feel less depleted at day’s end, according to research to be published in September 2013 in the Academy of Management Journal. Led by University of Toronto associate professor of management John Trougakos, the study, “Lunch Breaks Unpacked: The Role of Autonomy as a Moderator of Recovery During Lunch,” concluded that break-time freedom is critical to minimizing end-of-workday fatigue.

“Not only is it important for employees to consider what they choose to do during their breaks but also for organizations to provide employees with the freedom to use their own break time how they best see fit,” Trougakos and his colleagues wrote. 

Lunching at the desk

Nicole Pavlas, an account executive at New York-based Text100, a global communications firm, said workers across the nation tend to eat lunch at their desks and forget “to step away from computers during the day.”

“This increases stress levels and, as a result, the collective cost to American companies for absenteeism, reduced productivity, compensation claims, health insurance, direct medical expenses and employee turnover,” Pavlas wrote in a press release -- part of a publicity campaign to pair Trougakos’ research with the advantages of workplace snack stations designed by Staples Facility Solutions, a subsidiary of the Staples company, best known for office supplies.

However, Lisa Hamblet, a vice president at Staples Facility Solutions, embraced the notion of keeping workers indoors. Hamblet said her company’s surveys indicate that when workers don’t have the option to get food inside the office, “they are leaving the building.”

“They’re literally leaving the building and going to get coffee,” she said during a phone interview. “You’re leaving the building on work time, and you potentially could put your employer at risk if there was a car accident or something else. We encourage that employees stay in the work environment if they can.”

Moreover, Hamblet said, the typical coffee break can take as long as 40 minutes, given the time it takes to walk to a café, stand in line and walk back to the office.

“That’s where some of the lost productivity really comes into play,” she noted.

The American Journalism Review article pointed out that Bloomberg News managers tend to have the same view of office snack stations. While a nice “perk,” the article said, such stations are “also a way to keep staffers close at hand, working.” In addition, they have caused “more than a few new employees to put on what is known as the ‘Bloomberg 10,’ as in pounds.”

Hamblet said her company’s surveys haven’t focused on weight gain associated with office snack rooms.

“I do agree that in some cases being able to walk around and get more movement is definitely healthy for employees,” Trougakos said, adding that the key is for managers to give workers choice. But having a well-stocked break room is important “if I’m inconvenienced by going out in the rain or cold, [or] maybe if I’m in the middle of a critical time at work, but I need a quick pick-me-up. Rather than taking 20 minutes to get coffee -- as opposed to the five minutes I need to get that [at an office break room] -- for me, that’s the important thing.” 

Ideal break room?

Aside from the standard coffeepot and filtered water that many companies have offered for decades, Hamblet said, an ideal break room should have a variety of snacks that recharge employees, such as granola bars, some type of protein, and electrolyte-replacement drinks. Staples doesn’t have data on how prevalent well-stocked break rooms are at organizations or on the costs involved in creating new break rooms.

Ideally, the space should have adequate “places to sit and have a conversation,” Hamblet said.

“We see that a lot of times, when conversing with co-workers, great ideas come out of the break room.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

© 2013, Society for Human Resource Management.

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