On the menu: Improved mental health, productivity and satisfaction

On the menu: Improved mental health, productivity and satisfaction

Monday, January 28, 2019
/ By:
Anja Mikic

Whether it's salad bars replacing candy bars or kombucha on tap replacing beer on tap, leading organizations are increasingly realizing the value of healthy food and beverage offerings.

With the exception of athletes, what we eat and drink is often overlooked when thinking about factors that affect our daily performance. However, every choice we make is an opportunity to either fuel or fill - and growing research is strengthening the connection between what’s on our plate and what’s on our mind.

Good Food, Good Mood

Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting more than 300 million people of all ages. It’s a major contributor to the global burden of disease and a greater burden (in terms of cost and disability) than all cancers combined. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US $1 trillion each year. The study is one of the first to show that investing in mental health services has both health and economic benefits.

A growing field of research, Nutritional Psychiatry, has begun to examine the association between the food we eat and our brain health as well as the role of dietary intervention in promoting mental health. We’ve known for a while that dietary patterns high in processed foods are strongly correlated with an increased risk of depression, mild cognitive impairment and ADHD. There’s more than one reason that SAD is the acronym for the Standard American Diet, the Western dietary pattern characterized by high intakes of refined grains, sugars and red and processed meats. Year after year, this dietary pattern reflects a nation that is overfed and undernourished, often lacking the key nutrients to support optimal brain health. On the other hand, diets focused on whole foods - particularly fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains - have been found to be protective against mental illness and associated with a reduced risk of depression.

The evidence base for the dietary treatment of depression is growing. The first nutritional guidelines for the prevention of depression were recently published. They recommend following traditional dietary patterns such as the Mediterranean or Japanese diets, increasing consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, wholegrains, nuts and seeds, consuming foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids and limiting processed foods. There was also the first randomized controlled trial to examine the efficacy of dietary intervention in the treatment of moderate to severe depression. In this 12-week trial, the intervention group received nutritional consulting by a clinical dietician while the control group received the same level of social support. The dietary support group showed significantly greater improvement on a depression rating scale than the social support control group. Even more recently, researchers have begun to develop an evidence-based list of foods that may support prevention and recovery from depressive disorders. Fruits and vegetables rank in the top three food categories.

Find out how WELL can help you promote fruit and vegetable consumption and limit processed foods.


Among all medical conditions, depression may have the greatest impact on productivity worldwide. Research suggests that the greatest contributor to the economic impact of depression is lost productivity. In fact, the impact of depression-related absenteeism and presenteeism in the workplace is considerable across many countries. Depression can affect time management as well as productivity through increased absenteeism and presenteeism. Presenteeism costs - those associated with employees being physically present at work but unable to perform expected job duties - are 5 to 10 times higher than costs associated with absenteeism. A study by the WHO found that every US $1 invested into depression and anxiety treatment leads to a US $4 return in terms of improved health and productivity. This translates to a global net value of healthy life-years of $310 billion and significant productivity gains.

To combat this issue, increasing the selection of healthy food and beverage offerings can support the mental well-being of employees and potentially increase workplace productivity.

Workplace Satisfaction

Organizations are also increasingly offering foods and beverages to enhance the workplace environment. Increasing the quality of food offered is positively associated with improved meal satisfaction. Additionally, survey data shows that access to free food contributes to workplace happiness and job satisfaction, with employees reporting feeling more valued and appreciated by their employer. Data from this survey also shows a strong preference for healthy food options.

There are several other benefits of investing in employee health and well-being through healthy foods. Comprehensive wellness programming that includes healthy food offerings can enhance organizational reputation, draw new talent and retain current employees and, perhaps most importantly, influence personal health behaviors beyond the workplace setting.

Discover how you or your project can support healthy eating and mental well-being through the WELL Nourishment concept.

Anja Mikic joins the International WELL Building Institute™ with a strong background in nutrition and obesity research. She ​supports the Standard Development team in the continuous development of the WELL Building Standard™ and leads initiatives exploring how the built environment impacts dietary behaviors.