Would you like a job that enables exposure to a range of different industries and potential for large-scale health impact? Are looking for a challenge beyond the traditional clinical pathway that dietitians routinely enter? If so, engaging with employers on designing their workplace health and wellbeing programs may be exactly what you are looking for!

The attraction of workplace nutrition programs is mutually beneficial for employers and dietitians alike. For employers, they are fast becoming a priority as they help achieve cost-savings related to employee absenteeism, productivity, recruitment and retention. In addition, these programs can improve company reputation and, at least in some countries, health insurance premiums. For dietitians, they may be an avenue for diversifying our professional role, for increasing the profession’s exposure and reputation, and for promoting our status as nutrition leaders in the public eye. We are uniquely qualified for influencing health promotion in the workplace: we are highly trained and legally regulated to provide ethical, evidence-based advice and practical information about food and eating behaviours.

These benefits for all stakeholders are of course because promoting and educating on healthy eating is important to prevent the burden of non-communicable diseases in the general population. However, low levels of investment in preventive health programs in Australia, and many countries, means there is little in the way of such services. Workplace nutrition programs offer an effective inroad to preventing chronic disease, given that employees spend a substantial proportion of their waking hours in the office. Historically, employee health has fallen under the occupational health and safety umbrella and had a relatively restrictive remit, focusing mostly on the avoidance of injury at work. More recently, though, workplace health policies and programs have adopted a more proactive approach to employee health and wellbeing, with a focus on health promotion and illness prevention. This reorientation provides dietitians with a novel opportunity to reach a large proportion of the population who may benefit from their expertise.

Evidence for the effectiveness of workplace nutrition interventions comes from The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines for workplace policy and management practices1, together with a meta-analysis2 and several systematic reviews3-5. Targeting healthy eating and promoting behaviour change positively impacts dietary behaviour outcomes and weight loss. These changes can result in reduced employee absenteeism and presenteeism, and associated costs. Program components that appear to be most effective at achieving these positive outcomes are nutrition education via a variety of mediums, environmental modification and nutrition-related policy development, and integration of behaviour change components2, 4. Despite these findings in support of the benefits of workplace nutrition programs, there remains a need for more high quality, long-term studies to further understand the effectiveness of workplace nutrition programs and their impact on the company’s bottom line. In addition to promoting healthy eating behaviours, a key consideration to the success of workplace programs also appears to be a multidisciplinary approach encompassing physical activity components as well as stress management. Also, from the beginning, the evaluation of implementation efforts should be considered to inform our knowledge base and to ascertain our reputation as nutrition experts.

The core purpose of a dietitian, as defined by the Dietitians Association of Australia6, is to contribute to the promotion of health and the prevention and treatment of illness by optimising nutrition; as well as to apply scientific principles and methods to influence the wider environment affecting food intake and eating behaviour. In essence, this makes us best-suited to lead workplace nutrition programs aimed at improving eating behaviours for employees. A role such as this encompasses a variety of work functions fundamental to dietetic practice including, but not restricted to, management, education, research, advisory, communication, administration, program development and implementation, policy development, food service, and sustainability. Additionally, it provides the opportunity to further develop and expand high level soft-skill characteristics such as interpersonal skills, leadership, and strategic influence using sensitivity, creativity and diversity. In summary, workplace health and wellbeing presents an important and attractive opportunity for dietitians to positively impact population health and be recognised as nutrition leaders.

Dr Megan Whelan, Registered Dietitian

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References

1. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. Workplace policy and management practices to improve the health and wellbeing of employees. NICE; 2015.

2. Anderson LM, Quinn TA, Glanz K, et al. The Effectiveness of Worksite Nutrition and Physical Activity Interventions for Controlling Employee Overweight and Obesity: A Systematic Review. Am J Prev Med. 2009; 37(4): 340-357.

3. Geaney F, Kelly C, Greiner BA, et al. The effectiveness of workplace dietary modification interventions: a systematic review. Prev Med. 2013; 57(5): 438-47.

4. Gardner E and Cowbrough K. Nutrition at Work: Nutrition interventions in workplace health programmes: a literature review. Occupational Health at Work. 2016; 13(2):30-36.

5. Benedict MA, and Arterburn D. Worksite-based weight loss programs: a systematic review of recent literature. American Journal of Health Promotion. 2008; 22(6): 408–416.

6. Dietitians Association of Australia. DAA Accreditation Manual. Version 1.2. DAA; 2011.