What Can Bosses Do About Workers’ Unhealthy Eating at Work?

Employer reaches out with questions about how much control he can exert over employees he perceives to be eating unhealthily on the job.

A businessman in a tie appears to have indigestion after eating. An empty plate sits in front of him.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The cost of obesity to American businesses is staggering, running into the billions of dollars. It impacts all employers through increased rates of health insurance and workers compensation insurance. So, how much control, if any, may employers exert over what their employees are eating while on the job?

I received that question and a related request from two readers, both coincidentally in Texas — one is the CEO of a data monitoring facility, and the other is a bariatric surgeon, who performs weight-reducing surgery for people who are unable to otherwise control their weight.

Data Monitoring CEO’s Frustration

The CEO, “Mike,” wrote, “Our company provides monitoring of things like burglar alarms, oil well performance, patient care, to list a few. Employees have high-stress jobs, monitoring data streams of critical information, working on our campus that is ranked as essential by the U.S. government. We have kitchen and sleeping facilities — and that’s the problem. During their off time, many employees watch cooking shows and then prepare the dishes. Most have gained weight like you can’t believe, some dramatically. To make matters worse, I am required to supply the food! My insurance broker is warning of greatly increased premiums for health insurance,” because of obesity-related problems such as high blood pressure and diabetes. “One day, I got so angry that I yelled at them — and got nasty looks.

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“What steps, if any, may I legally take to address their obesity and unhealthy food decisions when on the job? Also, do the chefs on these cooking programs care at all about what they are encouraging viewers to eat?”

Bariatric Surgeon Also Faults Cooking Shows

“Please don’t use my real name,” said Houston bariatric surgeon “Dr. A,” “as people go crazy when I point out that, while genetics plays a role, still there is a large element of personal choice in becoming obese — knowingly eating too much of the wrong things. We ask our patients what influences their dietary choices. Often, they reply, ‘watching cooking shows on television and then preparing meals.’”

Conversation With Christopher Kimball

I had a conversation with Christopher Kimball of Milk Street (opens in new tab) and a founder of the cooking show America’s Test Kitchen about healthy eating. “How do you remain so slim and trim?” I asked. He answered in one word: moderation.

“Dennis, that’s really the key. But healthy eating isn’t that complicated. In addition to reducing meat consumption by adding more vegetables and cooking at home with big flavors, we become very satisfied with smaller portions.”

Kimball sees obesity “getting worse” and offered these practical New Year’s resolutions for healthier eating:

  • Reduce meat consumption and add more vegetables to your diet.
  • One reason people eat too much is because the food is not satisfying, so they eat more of it. If you cook at home with half a dozen core, healthy recipes, you can modify and use big flavor items and spices, and the result is that you will be very satisfied with smaller portions.
  • Finally, realize that packaged and restaurant foods contain a lot of fat, salt, sugar and far too many calories. Avoid them and never forget that moderation is so important! Personal responsibility is crucial for health in general.

And the Answer to My Reader’s Question?

So, just what could or should an employer say or do to address employees’ unhealthy eating habits at work? I ran this question by a friend of this column, Southern California intellectual property attorney Glenn Dickinson, who consulted with his colleagues at the LightGabler law firm (opens in new tab) in Ventura, Calif. They noted that “employers need to understand and be very clear on the limitations of what they may say in this situation.”

Here’s their advice for the CEO of the data monitoring firm:

1. He cannot tell employees that they have to restrict their eating.

He can offer healthy food options in the kitchen as a courtesy from the company and can tell them that they may bring their own food but that they may not bring food to share with the group for health and sanitation reasons.

2. He may offer complimentary educational health and nutrition seminars.

This must be done without judgment or insistence as to what employees must do, and it must be done, especially, without shaming. But he cannot tell them how much they can eat or tell them what items they are allowed to eat.

3. Employees are entitled to meal and rest periods and can do whatever they want on them, including eating what they want.

Consider that working 24-hour shifts might also contribute to health problems. Their sleep might be disrupted, they might not be exercising, and snacking is a common way to distract from the boredom of working long shifts.

Also note that, under disability discrimination laws, suggesting that employees have health or weight problems or reprimanding or terminating them for health-related reasons may well lead to a discrimination claim.

Happy Healthy New Year!

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield, Calif., and welcomes comments and questions from readers, which may be faxed to (661) 323-7993, or e-mailed to Lagombeaver1@gmail.com. And be sure to visit dennisbeaver.com (opens in new tab).

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC (opens in new tab) or with FINRA (opens in new tab).

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law (opens in new tab)." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."