by Bob Merberg    Bob's profile on LinkedIn  

How to Counter the Workplace Cake Culture

Healthier food options have gained a foothold in workplaces over the last decade, bolstered by research showing that healthy behaviors are rooted in healthy environments. 

We are no exception at Paychex — a leader in the payroll, HR, and benefit outsourcing industry where my team and I drive a well-being strategy to support 14,000 employees nationwide. Nearly 10 years ago, we implemented some of the behavioral economics strategies now commonplace to wellness advocates, steeply subsidizing healthier food options in our cafés and presenting menu items — on our catering menus and in our vending machines as well as our cafés — so that the healthiest choice is the easiest choice.  

We define “healthy” items as fresh, whole, well prepared food — which usually happens to be nourishing.

Despite our success with these strategies, unhealthy workplace food environments persist.  

Only a limited segment of workplace food is company-provided. More predominant is food that employees introduce into the workplace to share: home-baked treats, celebratory cakes, breakfast donuts, bake sales, fast food at meetings, candy at events or left over from holidays, pizza parties, and “food days” (designated by teams, when every member contributes a shareable treat to a junk-food smorgasbord). 

Having cake and other calorie-dense treats around all day every day evoked the term “cake culture” in many workplaces and media outlets. 

While everyone likes a treat from time to time, and food sharing is an important workplace social dynamic, surveys told us that the unrelenting presence of tasty temptations is unwelcome by a substantial segment of employees. It undermines the autonomy sought by those who struggle to modify their eating habits as a personal aspiration or for medical reasons. 

In addition to Paychex data about our food environment, we also noticed some employees’ social media postings about it — like one that read “…nothing says you work at Paychex more than the 15 pounds you gain from all the food.” This projected an image unrepresentative of the company’s employment and customer brands.  

Paychex won’t be able to shift cake culture overnight, but we are taking steps in that direction. At the center of our current approach is an employee recipe book. It sounds simplistic, but don’t judge a book by its cover. 

The objective of Paychex Gets Cooking: Sharing Our Healthy Favorites is multifold:  

  • Communicate a unified vision of a healthy workplace food environment 
  • Cultivate sensitivity to the entire population’s nutrition needs and preferences — including those seeking a healthier lifestyle
  • Serve as a rallying point for well-being that everyone, including organization leaders, can embrace, without restricting choice or being perceived as food police.

We asked all employees for their healthiest and most delicious original recipes. Just as important are the sidebars scattered throughout, including messages like these to normalize and support healthy workplace eating:

  • “Office potluck? Try a dish from this book. All of the recipes have been reviewed by a nutrition expert and bear your coworkers’ seal of approval!”  
  • “A fun summer activity: Invite employees who have gardens to bring in some of their more exotic fruits and vegetables and give coworkers a chance to sample.” 

We wanted Paychex Gets Cooking to be emblematic of the company’s commitment to employee well-being. The quality is on par with finer cookbooks you’d find at a bookstore.  

The morning we announced the free book on our intranet, copies were requested at a rate of 6/minute, and hits on our daily update crushed previous records. Within 24 hours, we “sold out” our initial supply of 2000 and promoted the electronic version while waiting for backordered hard copies to ship. Note to self: Communication and engagement are easy when you offer something employees want!

Any employer — regardless of wellness budget — can produce an employee-centric recipe book to help establish and communicate a healthy food environment. No need to make it a sleek production; you can start with a simple black-and-white spiral-bound book or even a website.  

With the book as the cornerstone of your strategy — and a determination to keep employees engaged with its underlying message — consider some of these additional steps Paychex is planning to keep the point alive: 

  • Highlight contributor recipes on employee café menus, so everyone can try them, while reinforcing the book and its message. If you don’t have a café, ask contributors to serve samples of their dish in a break room.
  • Work with wellness champions to promote potlucks where attendees each bring a dish from the book.
  • Feature the book on the wellness portal home page. Coordinate with wellness and food service vendors to reinforce the healthy food environment wherever and whenever possible.
  • Get employees started on the right foot with healthy workplace eating by making copies of the book available for recruiters to display at job fairs, promoting it as part of onboarding.
  • Use wellness challenge systems (online or offline) to motivate employees to prepare a dish from the book every day of a 1-week program or once a week for a month. 

With or without a recipe book, providing onsite farmers’ markets or having locally grown produce delivered to the worksite (subsidized if possible) can further stimulate a positive buzz. 

Don’t expect overnight results, but don’t ignore workplace food environment, either. It’s a unique opportunity to discover innovative and exciting approaches to support well-being — including some employees who may have felt left behind by conventional worksite programs. 

Bob Merberg is Manager of Employee Wellness and Food Service at Paychex. In his 20-year career, Bob has drawn on his nationally recognized expertise in participant engagement, behavioral change, and program management to help tens of thousands of employees and community members transform their lives. Learn more about Bob’s unique take on workplace food culture in his newest blog:


# Maureen Wixon 2017-04-10 04:26
Hi Bib! Are. You considering offering up the cook pvook or asking for recipes? Have one for applesauce that has no sugar :)

Much success! Best, Maureen
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# Maureen Wixon 2017-03-24 23:23
Bob, your focus on wellness and improving the health of employees is inspiring. When I attend workshops for my CEU's doughnuts are the offering and tho would not be on my list, I must admit I give in to temptation.
Congrats on promoting alternatives and innovation for companies to follow such as the cookbook. Have employees tried to use the recipes together? Adds fun and community bonding.
Thank you for introducing creative ways to be healthy!
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# Bob Merberg 2017-03-25 19:17
Thank you for the wonderful feedback, Maureen. Your workshop/doughn ut example is classic. Perhaps, someday, instead of telling ourselves we "gave in to temptation," we can acknowledge that we "aligned with our environment."

To my delight, some work teams have made plans to host office potlucks featuring recipes from Paychex Gets Cooking. We plan on promoting a companywide Paychex Gets Cooking potluck day later this year.
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# Maureen Wixon 2017-03-26 01:34
Great response. Reframing was elegant. Aptly reframed. Actually a ttempt at humor as don't use that phrase or word "diet." Appreciate your contribution to health and building community!
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# Bob Merberg 2017-03-21 18:14
I'm glad to hear this post may be helpful to you, Thaydra. Feel free to reach out to me via LinkedIn if you need a sounding board.
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# Thaydra 2017-03-20 21:36
This is so fantastic. I am on the Wellness Committee at my place of employment, and was trying to brainstorm ideas that would get employees involved and give them a sense of more personal engagement that went beyond just seeing who could get the most steps on their FitBit. The cookbook idea was one of my favorites, and hearing how well it worked for you just inspires me to make this happen even more! Thank you.
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