Workforce Programme: working for nutrition?

Geneva, 11 July 2019 - 

Over 2 billion people spend one third of their lives in an employment setting, from the 40% who live in extreme poverty on less than USD 1.90 a day to tech workers in Silicon Valley. During this time, they all are in the duty of care of their employers. Surprisingly, food and nutrition do not feature as widely as we might expect in this duty of care. It is surprising because the evidence - hard and anecdotal - suggests that actions to improve workforce nutrition bring significant benefits to both individuals and businesses.  

In light of this, GAIN and the Consumer Goods Forum co-convened a meeting on Better Nutrition for a Healthier Workforce last week. The purpose was to review the evidence and, if warranted, to elevate the issue beyond the rather low-key profile it currently has.  

What is a workforce nutrition programme? We reviewed evidence from high and low-income countries and from corporate headquarters to supply chain settings. Four types of programmes emerge:

  1. improving the availability and affordability of nutritious and safe foods;
  2. educating workers about nutrition;
  3. implementing checks to assess employees’ nutritional health; and
  4. breastfeeding support. 

Our latest evidence briefs summarise the evidence, and include improved employee loyalty and productivity, reduced absenteeism and presenteeism, and improved nutrition behaviours and nutrition outcomes. The evidence is stronger than many participants expected, although much of it was from high-income settings. The anecdotal evidence was equally powerful: a colleague from the Better Work programme at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) shared how women were prolonging industrial action to get a hard boiled egg in their lunch tiffin, with employees saying “we need to eat better at work than we do at home”. When an employer provides better food, it sends a signal that the organisation cares about its employees, and their dignity. 

Tea worker picking leaves in Sri Lanka

Woman picking up tea leaves in Sri Lanka. © GAIN

Some top tips emerged: 

  • Evidence on the business case is not always critical to securing employers’ support: the sense of “doing a good thing” and that good food leads to better wellbeing at work seems to drive that. However, building the evidence base is critical to sustaining an employer’s commitments.  

  • Design matters. Co-design and co-management of programmes with employees is as important to success as leadership from the top.  

  • Scaling up workforce nutrition programmes requires making it easier to start programmes, improving cost efficiency, and highlighting the return on investment to buyers, factories and middle management. Several tools, some in development, were highlighted for doing this including a Lactation Support Toolkit, the government of Sri Lanka’s guidelines for Healthy Canteens, and the Access to Nutrition Index lifestyles index and scoring.

  • Behaviour change unlocks success: from workers, to canteen staff, to those who design food service contracts.

  • Public action helps. We heard from public policy leaders about how they have worked with businesses to make the environment more conducive, through certification schemes for healthy canteens, training for nutrition workforce trainers, healthy eating in the workplace guidelines, and laws on the provision of dedicated, safe and comfortable breastfeeding spaces in the workplace. 

So how can these programmes be scaled up across companies and geographies?

The participants of the workshop, drawn from government, business, civil society, the UN and research organisations, repeatedly called for the need to “join the dots”, to create a whole greater than the sum of the parts. There was a sense that the workforce nutrition landscape was probably more heavily populated with programmes than we realised, but that the fragmentation of efforts meant we missed many opportunities to act for nutrition.  

To remedy this, the group will be exploring the formation of a “Working for Nutrition” Coalition (name to be further developed). The aim of the Coalition will be to create new opportunities for action on workforce nutrition by raising the profile of the opportunity, linking head offices with supply chain programmes, developing tools to articulate the benefits, lowering the cost and supporting programme design while also sharing learning, evidence and data.  

We will seek membership of governments, civil society, businesses, research organisations and UN agencies. If you are interested,  please contact Bärbel Weiligmann at GAIN.

At the end of the meeting, a number of personal and organisational commitments were made on workplace nutrition. GAIN made the commitment that by this time next year, if not before, we will have implemented our own workforce nutrition programme.

Watch this space.