I’m the CEO of a small company. One of the perks I offer my employees is free sodas and other soft drinks, which I make available to them in a well-stocked vending machine in the break room.
The other day I walked into the office of one of my direct reports and noticed their trash bin was full of empty beverage cans. This person is an outstanding and otherwise high-performing employee – but they are also seriously overweight. I’ve always thought I was doing something nice for my staff, but now I’m wondering if I’m contributing to their poor nutritional habits by offering this perk. Should I rethink this policy? Maybe stock the machine only with healthier beverages (which are available already)? Or just end the practice altogether? – Name withheld
I appreciate what is no doubt your sincere concern for the health and well-being of your employees.
But let’s remind ourselves that keeping your employees feeling fit and healthy is in your organization’s best interests too. Obviously they’re less likely to call out sick. But a healthy workforce—both physically and emotionally—also tend to be more engaged, creative, and better able to focus on their work. That makes them more productive, which benefits the bottom line.
You say this individual is already a high performer, so productivity does not seem to be the issue here. Instead, your concern is perhaps for this person’s general well-being, and/or quality of life outside of work. This too, if sincere, is admirable.
I wish I could say the same for your proposed solution, however.
As CEO, it might be tempting to think it’s appropriate, perhaps even your duty, to protect your employees from themselves. I assure you it is not. That smacks of paternalism, and something you should take pains to avoid.
It would be one thing if it was your employees who approached you about eliminating those unhealthy options. Indeed, as organizational steward, you would be remiss not to at least consider such a request. But to initiate this change yourself, and for the reason you cite, is a mistake.
By attempting to prevent one individual’s apparent overindulgence, you punish those who are able to partake in moderation. Nor is there any guarantee that your crude attempt at “social engineering” is going to work anyway. This individual may simply purchase their own beverages and bring them to work instead. And should your employees learn of your motivations for limiting or cutting off their beverage supply—and I assure you, they will—they’re going to be upset, and take offense – and rightly so.
And I’m afraid no amount of unsweetened ice tea or free granola bars will make up for it.
(I should mention too that perceptions of what constitutes a “health body-type” have changed considerably in recent years. And while obesity is a known contributor to certain adverse health outcomes, our understanding of what causes this condition has evolved as well, eating habits being just one possible factor.)
So don’t change your policy.
If, however, you remain committed to your employees’ good health, there is still plenty you might do.
In Dying for a Paycheck (2018), Jeffrey Pfeffer observes that some of the greatest risks to our health can be attributed to chronic stress. Heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and diabetes – not to mention substance abuse, depression, and suicide. And a major contributor to chronic stress?
In his research, Pfeffer identifies a number of workplace “exposures,” each of which is comparable in risk to that posed by second hand smoke, his data suggests. This list includes: long hours, the pressure to work quickly, work-family conflict, lack over control over one’s work, not having health insurance, working shifts, job insecurity, and working in a setting in which job- and employment-related decisions seem unfair – not to mention low wages.
Any of this sound like your company’s work environment? If so, there’s your opportunity to positively impact your employees’ health.
Ironically, one way the underpaid and/or overworked tend to cope with stress is to adopt poor nutritional habits. In Scarcity (2013), Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir remark that:
“Readily available junk food may cause obesity in the poor and busy, who are…more exposed [to stress] and less attentive; it is less of a threat for the rich and the relaxed.”
Which brings us full circle.
You seem inclined to attribute your employee’s apparent weight problem to the easy availability of sugary beverages. But it may actually be the other way around.
This person’s “overindulgence” could in fact be a symptom of a stressful job or work environment…something that you, as CEO, are of course largely responsible for creating.
 In addition to poor diet, the Centers for Disease Control currently lists the following factors as contributing to high incidents of obesity in the US: Lack of exercise, lack of sleep, “social determinants of health,” genetics, and illnesses and medications. (See https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/basics/causes.html. Retrieved 2/23/23.)
 Pfeffer, Jeffrey. Dying for a Paycheck. 2018 (HarperCollins), p. 43.
 Mullainathan, Sendhil, and Eldar Shafir. Scarcity. 2013 (Picador), p. 83.