New Year but same old you? Research suggests taking a look around before blaming yourself for broken resolutions

Blog posts

26 Jan 2022

Sally WilsonSally Wilson, Senior Research Fellow

Many of us start the year with good intentions about looking after our health, only to blame our own lack of willpower when we inevitably slip back into old habits. Why are commitments to improve our health behaviours so hard to stick to, particularly those around eating or drinking? New research suggests that we should stop blaming ourselves as the fault lies with our surroundings.

Experts working for the government’s obesity research unit say that efforts to tackle Britain’s obesity crisis are likely to fail because the public are constantly ‘bombarded’ by unhealthy food options. A recent Guardian article describes a ‘damning’ 28-page report which recommends that action is urgently taken to transform ‘the entire food environment’.

Researchers at the Centre for Food Policy at London’s City University, found that ‘easy access to and availability of unhealthy food 24 hours a day across the UK makes losing weight difficult for millions of people who are trying’. The review found that unhealthy food was much more likely to be promoted and on special offer in shops and supermarkets. This ‘close and constant’ exposure makes it very difficult for people not to think about food or make unplanned purchases of food high in fat, salt or sugar. The authors call for policy to steer the food environment to become healthier. They conclude that cinemas, leisure and activity centres, hospitals, workplaces, supermarkets and food outlets all need to work on offering and promoting tasty healthier choices.

Newly published IES research chimes with these conclusions and draws attention to the role of the workplace in our diet. Our choices can be very constrained at work because we have limited control over our environment, i.e. less freedom to choose what we consume, where we buy it, when we eat and how often. Food outlets at or near places of work frequently have a captive market; time-pressed employees are often reliant on what is sold locally or offered by work canteens and vending machines.

Our study was commissioned by the Rail Standards and Safety Board (RSSB) and stemmed from concern about the health of an increasingly ageing workforce and recognition of the role of the environment in employee health behaviours. The remit of the project extended beyond diet to include hydration, physical activity and opportunities to rest and recharge. IES researchers conducted observation work to understand features of job design with potential consequences for health-related decision making. The focus was on train drivers and rail maintenance workers and therefore considered themes such as effects of shift work, physically demanding work and sedentary work. Environments of interest included station concourses and platforms, train depots, track access areas, the interiors of welfare vans (which are used to move workers between maintenance sites), roadside service stations and staff mess areas.

The work provides rich insights into how people respond to their surroundings and the extent to which this drives behaviour. As we all know, hunger and thirst are not the only drivers of eating and drinking. For example working in the cold and dark can lead to cravings for high calorie comfort food and demanding schedules and shift work can prompt high caffeine intake or consumption of sugary drinks. In the presence of comforting, easily available junk food it can be a challenge for workers to choose alternatives. The prevalence of vending machines in smaller stations (mostly stocked with food high in fat, salt or sugar) emerged as an obvious concern for rail staff confined to that environment. Maintenance workers moving between sites have greater choice but are routinely tempted by supermarket promotions and fast-food outlets.

Workers who contributed evidence to the study generally had good intentions and were knowledgeable about healthy lifestyle. For some, bringing packed lunches was the only way to maintain a healthy diet. However, in contrast to the situation for many office workers, satisfactory facilities to store and prepare food were not always nearby which limited their options.

Our findings were developed into practical guidance to help the industry align their health and wellbeing interventions better with the rail environment. To inform this we drew on ‘nudge’ models of behaviour which highlight the influence of cues in the environment. Evidence from behavioural studies shows that people are susceptible to norms (what others are doing) and salience (what is most visible or convenient) and affect (how we feel).

Although our work was focussed on a narrow range of roles in one sector there are some broad lessons for all employers. Our findings demonstrated the importance of understanding employees’ work environments when designing health promotion and wellbeing campaigns. In particular, features of the work environment may constrain the impact health promotion or health education campaigns are able to make. Rather than telling people what to do, there should be a focus on making healthier choices easier.

Larger employers potentially have more power than individuals or households (or arguably policymakers) to make a difference to working peoples’ daily lives, but a co-ordinated approach is needed, as highlighted in the Guardian article. For example, the collective weight of employers could put pressure on vending machine suppliers to stock more nutritious snacks. Or on a local level, employers may be able to persuade mobile food vendors who offer healthy options to visit their premises.

Certainly what no one wants to see is employers policing their employees’ diets; after all we all deserve treats sometimes, and ultimately want to make our own choices. But employers taking these ideas fully on-board sends a signal to their workers that they are taking wellbeing seriously. Furthermore, there is potential for environmental interventions to boost the credibility of workplace wellbeing campaigns and demonstrate that organisations are sincere in their efforts to improve employee health.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.