Employee well-being and versions of corporate-driven orthorexia
In 1997, Steven Bratman  launched the concept of ‘orthorexia’, derived from the Greek “orthos”, meaning “correct or right” and “orexis”, meaning “hunger or appetite”. He described his own “pathological fixation on eating proper food”; including ritualized eating of vegetables picked no more than 15 minutes before consumption, and chewing each mouthful at least 50 times before swallowing. Following this, social discourse [1, 5, 12] has defined healthy nutrition as eating simply, ‘pure’, ‘clean’, wholesome, non-processed diets; diets which follow principles of local sourcing, and slow foods that oppose industrialized convenience goods.
Health and ‘wellness’ constitutes a major area of interest for policy-makers, practitioners, scientists, corporate stakeholders and media alike. It acts as proxy for subjective well-being, quality of life and happiness, and self-concept beliefs that improve organizational performance. Organizations have the opportunity to harness this happiness potential through employee well-being programs that promote physical exercise and healthy diets. Corporate nutritional responsibility is a dimension of corporate social responsibility wherein organizations take responsibility for their staff’s well-being by striving to influence their dietary habits and choices .
However, some corporations that invest in nutrition-oriented wellness counselling have been criticized  for extending their due diligence from the field of professional tasks and projects, to the personal arena of lifestyle choices. Such well-intended, yet unwarranted advice can indirectly act as a normative control mechanism, creating an all-encompassing health framework within which employees operate following a “lean and clean” ideal. There is, in the case of corporate orthorexia, a fine boundary between nutritional advice, advertisement and implicit requirement of tacit hierarchical obedience [11, 13].
Corporate-induced dietary prescriptions and reactions
In a retail corporation from New Zealand , a pre-, mid-, and post-program evaluation was conducted to assess any changes following a wellness intervention aimed to optimise personnel’s biometric data, including weight, waist circumference, body mass index (BMI), blood pressure, body fat, cholesterol, triglycerides and glucose level. The campaign featured videos with food demonstrations, nutritional counselling, newsletters, information kits on healthy food ideas, recipes and techniques, and monthly articles in a commercial catering magazine. However, post-implementation employee feedback was lukewarm and rather sceptical about effectiveness and efficiency of such nutritional education programs, suggesting that a supportive food environment can turn into an overly directive, intrusive one [3, 14].
In the hospitality and primary education sectors, studies [11, 13] have indicated that some employers feel responsible to step in and reduce staff’s tendency to buy ready-made meals and to eat unhealthy ingredients that predispose them to coronary heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Through training and intranet-based self-help resources, employees are encouraged to relearn how they view food, with some to be viewed almost primordially as threat, and to develop risk mitigation strategies against these. In this context, organizations contribute towards the development of a new distortive pedagogy on food which holds superfoods as health elixirs and non-superfoods as harmful and risky [12, 5].
These versions of corporate discourse on healthy eating treat nutritional styles in polarized terms – either healthy or unhealthy, and this dichotomy extends to incorporate the idea that nutritional habits deemed unhealthy are toxic, poisonous and indicate addiction . Corporate discursive practices on healthy nutrition tend to consider high-fat, high-sugar foods as addictive rather than habit forming, hence they stress the need for corrective and coercive intervention. The addiction or biobehavioral explanatory framework can have opposing effects on vulnerable staff groups [6, 8]: it can increase stigma by equating overweight with sickness, irreversible decay and lack of control; or it can trigger compassion and empathy, reduce individual blame and fuel more research and intervention on corporate support for healthy eating.
Corporate discourse nurtures a culture of uncertainty and moral panic over health threats. This outlook considers our eating patterns as impure, as we are surrounded by health hazards on every supermarket aisle. On this somewhat menacing backdrop, corporations promoting wellness programmes are saving us from ourselves and our imperfect decisions by providing a reassuring dietary haven safe from harm. This simplified, reductionist view is not sufficiently contextualized or backed up by verifiable evidence. Employees are persuaded to allocate abundant mental resources to food choices, to plan thoroughly and think ahead about what to eat, to be vigilant when shopping, to read cautiously each label on each ingredient and to extract strong emotions from nurturing this relationship with food, either for spiritual fulfilment, or out of guilt.
Additionally, corporate decision-makers who assess and stimulate employees’ readiness and willingness for behavioral change might be on a collision course with individual interests and concerns. Overly prescriptive wellness programs introduce a new regime of power asymmetry within the corporate environment, as orthorexics complying with strict dietary patterns may consider themselves as ‘superior’ to others, giving rise to polarisation.
Lessons learnt from past program initiatives show employers who wish to streamline their staff’s healthy food awareness need to develop menu assessment guidelines which are tailored for various target groups built on demographic considerations of age, cultural and religious background, gender, and regional differences in affordability and availability of various food categories [7, 8]. Corporate diet counselling programs need improved evaluation methodologies to integrate non-health related impact of such programs on employee well-being, including cost-benefit, cost effectiveness or cost utility analysis [4, 9, 11].
Regular employees’ unpredictable agendas and shifting priorities signal the need for more flexibility in designing, implementing and assessing well-being initiatives. Corporate discourse on healthy nutrition needs more unbiased, evidence-driven intervention models; non-judgemental pluralism would be far more effective than diet absolutism associated to a corporate moral monopoly. Corporations should not assume the role of judge of taste when food choices or healthy lifestyles are concerned. Advice that is programs should be less directive and more supportive, less prescriptive and more facilitative, and customizable to accommodate each employee segment’s dietary needs. More realistic and reachable healthy diets rely on moderation instead of “all or nothing” orthorexic doctrine.
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- Young, L., Bidois, A. & Mackay, S. (2004). Making a healthy difference to menus: Evaluation of a catering program in New Zealand. Nutrition and Dietetics. 61(4): 226-33.
Mara Stan, PhD, Lecturer in Sociology, University of Bucharest, Romania