Will Feeding Your Employees Make Them More Productive?

11/10/2011 06:58 pm ET | Updated Jan 10, 2012

The Wall Street Journal recently (Oct. 24) had a story about how some companies are attempting to enhance productivity of their employees by offering them perks and making the workplace a more pleasant, mood-happy environment. Interventions ranged from isolating a productive but cantankerous employee from his team to free lunch and afternoon chocolate chip cookies. Of course, the goal is to squeeze more work from the employees, thereby assuming that a happy worker is a productive worker. (One can only recall the seven dwarfs singing their happy going-off-to-work song in the Disney movie, "Snow White" and wonder if this song will be an anthem for some large corporation.) However, in reading the description of what is being done at some companies, it occurred to me that feeding the workers might actually decrease productivity rather than improve it.

Several years ago I wrote a book, "Managing Your Mind and Mood Through Food." The book described the effects of nutrients on mental performance, mood and sleepiness. The information was based on psychological research on the effects of nutrients such as protein, caffeine, fat, and carbohydrates on behavior. I found that choosing or avoiding certain nutrients could either enhance mental acuity or decrease distractibility and irritability. The research could be easily summarized; mental performance was optimized after the consumption of caffeine and protein and, no surprise here, fat and alcohol made employees good only for testing mattresses. Eating carbohydrate with protein had no affect on performance or mood, but when carbohydrate-rich foods, except fructose (fruit sugar) were consumed in the mid-to-late afternoon, mood and mental energy improved.

Some of the effects of these various nutrients on mood have been well-researched and reflect an understanding of how components of what we eat can affect neurotransmitters in the brain. Caffeine, as any coffee drinker knows, has a stimulant effect, speeding up reaction time and enhancing alertness (Seidl, R, Peyal, A et al Amino Acids 19:635-642,2000; Clubley M, Bye C, Henson T, et al Br J clin Pharmac 7; 157-163, l979). One company cited in the aforesaid Wall Street Journal article, Giant Media in Santa Monica, Calif. "keeps the office refrigerator stocked with Red Bull." Clearly, management knows how to keep its employees on their mental toes.

However, Giant Media may be counteracting the effects of Red Bull or other caffeinated drinks on worker productivity by its failure to monitor what is being eaten at lunch. This company cleverly decided that if lunch were provided, the workers would eat at their desks, thus eliminating the possibility that they might leave their offices to seek food at lunchtime. Although one could question the advisability of eliminating a non-work respite mid-day on overall performance (fresh air, sunlight and exercise at lunch time are often sought by workers to refresh their mood and mental energies), clearly having the employees inside the building throughout the day was thought to be an advantage.

What were they eating for lunch? The article did not mention the menu options, but unless management also controlled food choices, they might not see the productivity results they anticipated. High-fat foods like double cheeseburgers, four-cheese pizzas or chicken nuggets with a fat-laden dipping sauce have been known, anecdotally, to cause a slump in alertness and attentiveness about an hour or two after the meal has been eaten. The technical term is post-prandial slump but most people recognize it as an irresistible urge to put their heads on their desks and snooze (Delgado-Lista, J, Lopez-Miranda, P et al Am J Clin Nutr 87: 317-322, 2008).

What should they be eating for lunch? Lean protein, vegetables, salad and high-fiber carbs should be on the menu. The protein supplies a particular amino acid, tryrosine, to the brain which, when needed, goes into the manufacture of norepinephrine and dopamine. These neurotransmitters are involved in mental productivity and alertness and if the after-lunch period involves intense cognitive work, these chemicals should be in optimal supply.

None of the companies mentioned in the article include a happy hour during the workday, but one company tries to keep its customers and employees content in the afternoon with chocolate chip cookies. Midwest Airlines passed out cookies to its passengers and crew, and when it merged with Frontier Airlines, continued the practice. Professor Nancy Rothbard, a professor at the Wharton School of Management University of Pennsylvania suggests that the cookies generate a positive mood.

Afternoons, especially in the darker seasons of the year such as late fall and winter, generate moodiness; people, whether at work or at home, feel depressed, restless, fatigued, distracted and grumpy. The culprit is lack of serotonin, which seems to lose activity during the waning hours of the afternoon. Darkness simply exacerbates the moodiness and research suggests that lack of sunlight may further depress serotonin levels in the brain.

Cookies or popcorn, crackers, chips, pretzels, granola bars and even baked potatoes indirectly increase the synthesis of serotonin. The intermediary between eating a cookie or piece of toast is insulin, which expedites the entrance of tryptophan into the brain. Tryptophan is the amino acid from which serotonin is made. However protein prevents serotonin synthesis from happening, and fat slows down the process. This is why giving Midwest passengers cookies makes them feel better; as they sit there feeling more and more restless and bored, the cookies remove that feeling and make them feel calm and content. (However, I doubt even a box of chocolate chip cookies could take away the anxiety of teeth-rattling turbulence or an emergency landing.)