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Fri 17th May 2019 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Making time for meals, the public health cut, cleaning up our act and positive mental health
Authors: Glynn Davis, Paul Chase, Helen McMillan and David Bashford

Making time for meals by Glynn Davis

When I took a job with a US financial institution it involved making regular phone calls to its European offices during what was often a very long day with little time for lunch breaks, as the Americans wanted their pound of flesh. One day I called the Geneva office at 1pm to be answered by a receptionist who was surprised at my interruption as the whole office was out to lunch – along with the rest of the country.

That was 20 years ago. The situation today isn’t quite as regimented due to the wholesale dismantling of the fixed-time activities within people’s days – one of the most notable being meal times. The gradual disappearance of what were critical parts of the day has been going on for many years and the impact on foodservice continues to be felt.

Going back in time our ancestors lived and ate in sync with the rhythms of the seasons and the hours of sunlight, which determined when everybody stopped to eat. Schools and formal institutions still adhere to a timetable but everybody else has dropped into a much less strict regime as flexible working hours have become the norm and many people don’t even need to go to the office any more. The better restaurants are adapting to this new dynamic.

Flexible working clearly saves time and should allow people to commit more of their waking hours to vital activities such as eating – but things aren’t quite playing out that way. We seem to be increasingly strapped for time. However, this is merely a perception of the time we have rather than the actual reality – for most people that is. We think we have less time because there are so many things we can now do with our time – many of them social in nature rather than work.

One element of this is social media, which voraciously eats our time. This is merely one manifestation of digital, which is also driving the expectation of immediate gratification. This gives the perception of having no time to waste. In reality, the digital revolution should be massively time-saving as it can remove the need to visit shops, banks, restaurants and travel agents. Everything can be summoned to your door without you even leaving the house.

The impact of this immediate mindset on meal times and eating habits has been catastrophic. According to Mintel, two-fifths (40%) of millennials think cereal is an inconvenient breakfast meal because it takes time to clean up the bowl after eating, which is leading to food decisions being made on the basis of convenience and speed to mouth.

This has led to the rise of fast food, vending machines, takeaways and today’s big trend, online delivery. What’s the problem with this? The issue is it’s leading to greater consumption of processed foods. This is hardly new and probably began with the invention of sliced bread but in recent years it has taken a real hold. What’s particularly worrying is some of these processed convenience foods are marketed as healthy options, while some pander to the latest fashionable diets.

Among the latest healthy foodstuffs hitting the market and gaining a following are meal replacement brands such as Soylent and Huel. The latter is a plant-based powder that promises to provide all the nutrition the body needs from a meal. The argument put forward by these brands is many people don’t have the time or money to get the nutrition they need in their time-poor lives. I personally find it hard to think of anything as joyless as a powdered meal replacement.

We’ve certainly come a long way from the dining habits of our ancestors and I hope the foodservice industry can turn things around and convince people they really do have time to eat proper meals, which is a natural, healthy, social and above all life-affirming activity.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

The public health cut by Paul Chase

In my youth, if you opposed capitalism and profit you joined a political party that explicitly advocated a different way of organising the economy and society. If you weren’t hopelessly idealistic but positively deluded you would join a far-left group dedicated to revolution, the sort lampooned in Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, which featured the People’s Front Of Judea and its various splinter groups. But then we saw the collapse of the Soviet bloc. It was widely believed at the time that tearing down the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union meant the end of ideology. Don’t believe it. The collapse of the communist alternative to capitalism may have left a lot of ideologues bereft of an ideology but they quickly found a new one – public health.

An unprecedented level of lifestyle regulation is what so-called public health is all about. Smoking was a battle they thought they’d won until the private sector created e-cigarettes. The advent of this new, and much safer, nicotine delivery system caused panic among public health activists. If their “cause” was to save us from the carcinogenic contents of tobacco smoke they would welcome “vaping”. However, the World Health Organisation has called for the smoking ban in public places to be extended to e-cigarettes and it was recently announced vaping will be made illegal in Hong Kong. Of course it makes sense to regulate the content of these devices but to demonise them as a gateway to smoking cigarettes when the vast majority of vapers are people seeking to quit smoking represents the most empty-headed type of puritanism.

As regular readers of my blogs will know, my view of the ongoing campaign to demonise and de-normalise alcohol use is that it’s driven by a similar desire to regulate lifestyle. The Licensing Act 2003 awoke the temperance beast and alcohol policy has been fuelled by moral panic ever since. The focus of anti-alcohol campaigners today is the effect of alcohol on public health but it’s worth remembering the “24-hour drinking Act” so beloved of the Daily Mail was initially attacked on the basis it would create a wave of violent crime and disorder. Office of National Statistics data has found violent crime linked to alcohol has fallen 32% since 2004 and 47% since 1995, so what was a long-term trend of falling alcohol-related crime that began ten years before the Licensing Act 2003 came into force in 2005 has actually accelerated since its introduction!

If attacking Big Alcohol was the “second front” public health opened up after its campaign on smoking, Big Food is the new bad boy. I’ve written before about calorie caps and the campaign to limit kebab shops opening near schools, but the campaign against so-called “junk food” has now reached new heights of absurdity. Transport for London (TfL), at the behest of London mayor Sadiq Khan, recently banned advertising on its premises or vehicles of junk food, which it transpires means any food high in salt, sugar or saturated fat. This resulted in TfL revising its own advertising to ensure it didn’t fall foul of its own ban. TfL has now banned the advertising of strawberries and cream at Wimbledon – you couldn’t make it up!

What do all these campaigns have in common? I return to the question of ideology. Public health has become a cult. The campaigns of the new public health cult are essentially socialist-substitute events, vehicles for opposition to capitalism and profit. What distinguishes this cult from the public health movement of the past is “public health” is no longer about promoting measures that would eliminate disease but rather as a set of organising principles around which the whole of society should revolve. Bans, sin taxes and more regulation that would strangle business is seen as the way forward. The collapse of communism as an explicit belief system facilitated the submergence of anti-capitalism into “movement politics”. Just because these people fell out of love with communism, doesn’t mean they fell in love with capitalism. The virus of puritanism permeates all these campaigns to save us from ourselves and now “sustainable food” is being linked to climate change and saving the planet.

All cults rely on a conspiracy theory. The public health cult ultimately believes business is a conspiracy against the public interest. This anti-business sentiment is reflected in the re-emergence of the basic ideological divide between the two main political parties. It has also resulted in a plethora of single-issue causes that see free markets as a problem, not a solution, and seek to justify a retreat from the modern world as the only way of saving ourselves and our planet. Whatever next?!
Paul Chase is director of CPL Training and a leading commentator on alcohol and health policy 

Cleaning up our act by Helen McMillan

Restaurants and bars are having to work harder than ever to attract footfall. Opening a new venue isn’t the only way to achieve growth, to succeed you must focus on sustainability, offer and experience.

The traditional boardroom diktat of “make a buck whatever the cost” is thankfully changing as decision-makers realise an “anything goes” mentality is no longer the golden ticket to success. Consumers want to relate to brands that have ethical values with a purpose so businesses can’t be purely about delivering share value to investors any more. 

There’s something reassuring and hopeful in this change of mindset, even if it’s being driven by growing consumer and government pressure.

Leading the march are members of the influential Generation Z, who are aged up to 24 and care a lot about the world around them and want to be associated with brands that share their ideals. When asked, more than four-fifths (81%) expressed concern for climate change, 78% for air pollution, 73% for child obesity and 73% for single-use plastics (source: KAM Media).

That’s why the issue of waste and food waste is so high on the corporate and political agenda. The total amount of avoidable food wasted in the UK every year from the hospitality sector is one million tonnes (source: WRAP). In total, businesses throw away food worth an estimated £5bn, while £15bn is wasted from our homes. The emissions this creates is the equivalent of every third car on the road!

Government has stepped in and is placing increasing emphasis on tackling the problem, which environment secretary Michael Gove has described as an “environmental, economic and moral scandal”. Only this week he was joined by the government’s recently appointed food surplus and waste champion Ben Elliot at a Step Up To The Plate event at London’s prestigious V&A museum, which is also hosting the exhibition Food: Bigger Than A Plate. 

The event attracted more than 300 hospitality, retail and food operators, who were asked to sign a pledge to halve food waste by 2030 in line with UN Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, and adopt the WRAP and IGD Food Waste Reduction Roadmap to have 125 of the UK’s largest food businesses measuring, reporting and acting on food waste by 2019. If there’s failure to comply, Gove has also hinted it could be necessary for “penalties” to be issued to curb food waste such as those seen in Italy and France.

Therefore, with the pressure well and truly on the hospitality sector to Step Up To The Plate, there’s good news – the solution isn’t rocket science, it’s largely down to good stock and order management.  Careful menu planning and recipe modelling are key. Consider the carbon footprint of the products you use, minimise waste through portion sizes, operate strong kitchen management and good stock control. 

In summary, it’s about having access to real-time data on sales at point of service, purchase volumes and stock levels, together with the ability to control the purchasing of every outlet. 

I recently saw this in action on a menu on which a high-street casual dining brand was offering smaller plates for smaller appetites. There wasn’t much of a cost incentive so the margins were going to be very good, but it goes to show that with simple, clever wording on a menu you can make a difference.

Bringing it back to stock and order, the difference can be made by making incremental improvements in your process that collectively have a big impact. 

Sustainability benefits will be achieved in terms of reducing packaging, food waste and CO2 omissions, to name a few. When combined, these incremental savings stack up to not only make a significant contribution to the bottom line but also to the corporate and social responsibility objectives your customers (and government) increasingly expect of you.

The cherry on the cake is that when consistently implemented, I have seen improvements on margins of up to 8%, so it’s good for the bottom line too.

For hospitality it’s never been easier, thanks to integrated technology to achieve these targets by accessing real-time data that can be aggregated quickly to create comprehensive reporting in an easy to understand format. In this climate, improving efficiency is more urgent and important than ever and moving to a data-driven culture is key to survival.

Taking an intelligent approach to wastage will not only reduce your impact on the environment but enhance your ethical credentials, which are increasingly important when building brand loyalty and confidence.
Helen McMillan is Zonal’s director of online commerce

Positive mental health by David Bashford

An unfair TripAdvisor review that’s gone viral, a power cut during peak service or multiple colleagues off sick with the latest bug doing the rounds. Any number of situations can cause stress at work, not to mention our modern “always on” culture of social media and smartphones and the hectic personal lives that go with it.

While some stress is good and can encourage people to high achievement, unmanageable, long-term pressure can seriously dent your mental health.

The signs of a dip in mental health aren’t always easy to spot but the evidence for it is categorical. Almost two-fifths (37%) of UK employers have reported an increase in stress-related staff absences during the last year, according to a survey from HR body the CIPD.

What are the signs of stress? When employees start acting differently it can indicate a problem. Whether it’s a change in attitude, taking more time off sick, turning up late or seeming more nervous or irritable at work, stress manifests in many ways. Mood swings or becoming withdrawn are other signs of stress, as are loss of interest, commitment and confidence at work or overly emotional reactions such as crying easily or becoming aggressive. One less well-known sign is loss of sense of humour. If someone previously enjoyed a joke, being unable to see the funny side of a situation might suggest an overwhelmed colleague.

Nail-biting, picking at skin and muscle tightness can also be indicative of raised tension levels, as can over or undereating, smoking or drinking too much and, for some, suicidal feelings.

In a team dynamic there are other signs managers can watch out for such as a rise in the number of arguments between colleagues or an increase in staff turnover. What managers may notice first is a drop in performance levels or an increase in complaints and grievances within the team or about the team from customers or other parts of the business.

Pre-emptive action can reduce the impact of stress. Pub company Fuller’s has decided to take a proactive approach to boost positive mental health. Lee Marshall, Fuller’s group health and safety manager, said the company set up a mental health awareness web page for staff about two years ago after an incident in one of their pubs. The site signposts topics for discussion, hosts Licensed Trade Charity (LTC) support videos and gives links to organisations where people can go for more information and help. To raise awareness about the site, Fuller’s organised a “stop the clock” event. This involved all staff across the Fuller’s sites stopping for 15 minutes at a point during the day to go through the topics and become familiar with the web page. Following this initiative page views increased a third, Marshall said.

Fuller’s wanted to further support employees so the company spoke to LTC and its insurers about what it could do. As a result, the pub company has launched “mental health first-aider” courses for staff. On the course people gain a deeper understanding of issues that affect mental health and learn how to spot the signs and symptoms of poor mental health. They learn how to initiate a supportive conversation with co-workers. For example, how to listen non-judgmentally. Course attendees learn how to assess if there’s a risk of suicide, help someone access appropriate support and call in the emergency services if necessary.

About 200 people have signed up for the courses and the goal is to have at least one mental health first-aider at every site. There are plans for first-aiders to be given badges with “its ok not to be ok” or “time to talk” to further raise awareness. Lee explains it’s a visual prompt to show they are there to talk to if needed.

The company also offers its staff free online health check-ups, which look at lifestyle and highlight what people can do to live healthier lives.

Fuller’s plans to run more “stop the clock” initiatives to raise awareness and will launch a Mind-backed survey for all staff to better understand how the broader workforce is feeling.

Marshall said a healthy workforce that knows how to take care of its own mental wellbeing benefits everyone, while Fuller’s initiatives have helped with staff retention because the company is seen as caring.  Looking after employee mental health helps to build loyalty, team morale and a wider belief in the business.

Proactive policies are working for Fuller’s and other employers should take note, they have a legal responsibility to support staff experiencing mental health issues.

It’s also crucial to recognise workplace stress can trigger or exacerbate mental illnesses. One way employers can spot and prevent potential triggers is to assess their workplace for stress factors and introduce measures to reduce the impact.

We advise organisations run risk assessments looking at the key issues that cause stress. These can include the working environment, working patterns and work demand. They also cover employees with a lack of autonomy and support, poor work relationships, poorly defined or conflicting roles, and organisational change.

Once an assessment is complete you’ll need to provide support and resources to employees to help resolve any issues. It’s also important to consider that if an employee’s mental health condition has existed for a significant amount of time, they may be classified as disabled under the Equality Act 2010. If so, employers have a further legal responsibility to make reasonable adjustments to support them in their role. 

Mental health of the workforce is vital. Happy, healthy staff treat customers better. Good mental health benefits everyone.
David Bashford is managing director of Food Alert, a food safety and health and safety consulting, technology and training provider

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