The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) highlights the importance of good nutrition before, during and after an infection. While no foods or dietary supplements can prevent a COVID-19 infection, maintaining a nutritious diet is important to supporting a healthy immune system to fight infections. In addition, the World Health Organization (WHO) states that a well-balanced diet is critical to receive the essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein and anti-oxidants the body needs to be in good health and build a strong immune system to lower the risk of chronic illnesses and infectious diseases. Therefore, a nutritious diet is important for all age groups throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Diet and nutrition of the workforce during and post-COVID-19
The COVID‑19 crisis has had a dramatic impact on the world’s workforce; partial or total workplace closures have restricted business operations and have affected an estimated 80% of the global workforce. The worst-hit workers are those working in small and medium-sized enterprises, and low-wage workers in informal employment, with limited access to safety nets. For others, adjustments in the work process and arrangements to work from home have enabled them to retain their jobs during COVID‑19.
Currently, employers are facilitating a gradual return to the workplace. Workplace canteens are opening to workers if social distancing rules can be maintained or providing packaged meals to avoid fully opening staff canteens. Most workers eat at least one main meal during their working day. Workers who encounter time challenges to prepare home-cooked meals to rely on catered meals facilitated by their employer. Others bring their lunch or go to food outlets, markets, or takeaways. For many of them, it remains a daily task to obtain a diet containing all the recommended nutrients. In some labor-intensive sectors, nutrient requirements are so high that they are difficult to be obtained through the diet alone. Also pregnant or nursing women have elevated nutrient requirements that will need careful meal planning.
A survey among employees highlighted the main challenges workers face to eat healthily:
1) easiest food choices aren’t always the healthiest
2) “I don’t always have time to buy and prepare healthy food”
3) “it’s too expensive”
4) “the people I’m around don’t eat healthily.”
Nutrition and health at work
Nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, are critical in many functions of physical and mental health. The role of nutrition in immunity is not only to support preventing but also resolving infections that have been well established. Among other reported benefits of nutrition are increased energy and reduced fatigue, as well as enhanced alertness, cognitive and mental performance. Nutrition also plays a role in many other functions such as bone density and muscle strength and slowing progression of non-communicable diseases.
A pre-COVID-19 survey in the UK revealed that infections, musculoskeletal problems, mental health conditions, and diabetes were among the main health reasons for sick absence. However, nutrition as a direct modifiable factor for many of these health conditions is often overlooked by employers. Higher absence rates among workers can be expected post-COVID-19 due to “suspected infections” but also as a result of increased mental problems; approximately half of the young people reported anxiety or depression since the start of the pandemic. Therefore, during and post-COVID-19 pandemic, healthy eating, and nutrition programs in the workplace are important in fostering employee immunity, physical and mental health. Centrally distributed workplace nutrition provides the opportunity to reach many workers and contribute to employees’ essential nutrient requirements.
Evidence for nutrition programs at work
Workplace nutrition programs can include “education” or “coaching” programs to encourage workers to consume more nutritious foods. Access to nutrition consultation and personalized nutrition advice has a significant potential health improvement rate. Nutrition programs can also include (subsidized) nutritious food offers at work, such as healthy lunch choices or fruits, fortified lunches, or micronutrient supplements. The evidence for the health benefits of nutrition in the workplace is growing. Micronutrients provided to workers through fortified foods or supplements significantly improved workers’ nutrition status in various workplace settings. Anemia, common colds, urinary tract infections, and work absence were reduced in Bangladeshi women garment factory workers receiving multi-micronutrient-fortified rice along with iron and folic acid supplement and nutrition counseling for 10 months. Infection-related work absence was reduced by almost two-thirds in healthcare workers consuming multi-micronutrient supplements for one year. Other reported benefits of providing micronutrients in the workplace are manifold; reduced heart rate, improved body mass index scores, bone density, perceptual and cognitive functioning, improved mood, and reduced depression.
What are the benefits for the worker and employer?
Employers bear many of the costs related to absenteeism and presenteeism. On average, employees cost businesses the equivalent of three months per year in lost productivity. Unhealthy eating (too much salt, sugar, saturated fat), as well as inadequate essential nutrient intake, raises the risk of low productivity. By optimizing workplace nutrition, workers receive the nutrition needed to stay alert and focused while employers benefit from reduced absenteeism and less presenteeism or unproductive use of time. Better nutrition also equates to improved resilience to infections and stress – other potential pathways to better work performance.
Employers’ social responsibility for the nutrition of own employees
Employers have an essential role to play during the COVID-19 crisis to provide good nutrition, especially for the most vulnerable in society. It is important that work environments facilitate good nutrition to support the physical and mental health of their workers. Investing in workplace nutrition is a high return on investment for the employer and can increase workers’ health, work attendance, morale, efficiency, and productivity. A recent report by GAIN-SUN-Eat Well demonstrated that “workforce nutrition” is a win-win for employers looking to improve both employee health and business outcomes. Moreover, it can contribute to the nutrition targets of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically SDG 2 (zero hunger), SDG 3 (good health and wellbeing), and SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth).
There is a growing awareness among the public and private sectors that workplace nutrition can benefit both employees and businesses. IMPAct4Nutrition (read more in our Action in Brief on IMPact4Nutrition) is an example of a public-private engagement that aims to bring together the diverse private sector interested in contributing to the Indian Government’s social movement named POSHAN Abhiyaan or National Nutrition Mission. Diverse partners are engaged including UNICEF, Sight and Life, CSRBox, Tata Trusts, and the Confederation of Indian Industries. The priority by IMPAct4Nutrition is promoting nutrition in the workplace by targeting key nutrition behaviors in the workplace in three areas; assets and core business for nutrition, cash/corporate social responsibility for nutrition, and employee engagement for nutrition. During COVID-19, IMPAct4Nutrition has developed digital training modules to support companies in promoting good nutrition across their business ecosystem with practical, easy to follow tips on how employees can maintain an appropriate nutritional status. Through these modules, the platform is reaching 10 million employees, their families, and communities in 51 companies across India.
In June 2020, IMPact4Nutrition was honored with a UNICEF global INSPIRE Award in the category ‘Best Multistakeholder Engagement’. Nearly 100 campaigns from 50 countries were nominated and voted on by UNICEF staff worldwide.
The reward is high
A successful workplace nutrition program can be part of a broader organization’s framework tailored toward health and wellness. A successful program requires buy-in from leadership as well as a dedicated coordinator and resources for implementation. Quantitative data such as surveys, nutrition, and health data will help to evaluate if the program was a success. Besides the employer, trade unions, foodservice operators, and incentives by insurance companies can further contribute to a positive nutrition environment at work.
Nutrition programs in the workplace offer a direct opportunity to workers and employers; they have the potential to improve workers’ physical and mental health, and loyalty and thereby improve work attendance, productivity, and employer reputation. The potential return on investment of investing in workplace nutrition is high. Therefore, proper nutrition in the workplace is a win-win proposition for employers and employees. Investing in workers’ nutrition should be a goal if organizations are to thrive.