Last week Susan Jebb, chair of the UK Government’s Food Standards Agency, said in a personal capacity that bringing cake to the office should be regarded as harmful in the same way as passive smoking. Sorry. This misses a very important point. While Britain has an obesity crisis, there’s nothing wrong with a little treat to lift the mood. The disruption of the pandemic and the ongoing cost-of-living crisis has put a lot of pressure on us. Cake is good for the soul – and great workplace management.
Think of that bit as self-care. A red velvet cupcake is the culinary equivalent of red lipstick. When times get tough, women cut back on extravagant purchases and turn to affordable pleasures. Cosmetics and fragrance make us feel good. The luxury giants have long known the power of a pick-me-up. While not everyone can afford a Chanel handbag, it is still possible to feel chic with a bit of Chanel No 5. Prada SpA even owns the chic Milanese patisserie Marchesi.
Meanwhile, both employers and employees between WFH and RTO are struggling to adapt. Friday cake — or Thursday if you have flexible hours — can not only be heartwarming, but also open up communication between colleagues who may be spending part of the week apart. A senior executive at a public relations firm told me that the introduction of cake on Friday afternoons a decade ago did more to improve office morale than anything else.
This is even more important in difficult times. A British retailer fighting back to survive after the major financial crisis of 2008, it became clear that it would not be able to pay its staff a bonus. However, the then CEO arranged a Christmas party and handed out chocolates to the staff who had worked hard under difficult circumstances. The generosity didn’t make up for the lack of a bonus, but it did help mitigate some disappointment.
When I worked for the Financial Times, in the midst of the 2008 recession, the newspaper provided a cake trolley every afternoon, arriving at a slightly different time than tea and coffee. We called the gap the “Cake Default Swap” – and joked that the longer the interval, the more likely that day’s trolley would be the last. Gallows humor, yes, but the possibility of candy provided relief in a frightening time.
Even before the pandemic, companies were providing free snacks and drinks. Today, about half of the US offers them, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. (Bloomberg LP has been providing snacks, coffee and meals to its employees for years.) A 2015 survey by online grocer Peapod.com found that two-thirds of employees at companies that provided free snacks and drinks were satisfied with their jobs. This is even higher among young people. Millennials were nearly three times more likely to appreciate office treats compared to those over 45.
The PR company that pioneered cake a decade ago now offers a different treat every day, in part to encourage people to come to the office. Catering giant Compass Group Plc recently said more companies were using subsidized meals to lure workers back. Comfort food is especially popular. In the UK, retailers including employee-owned John Lewis Partnership, Tesco Plc and J Sainsbury Plc are all offering food for their staff to help them with the cost of living crisis.
There is a law of diminishing returns with cake. Too many homemade banana breads or donuts from the nearby hipster bakery increase health risks. Familiarity can also cause boredom, if not contempt. In the meantime, perks should not be an excuse for underpaying people. Non-cash rewards should be part of a well-rounded compensation package.
Tesco recently came under fire for giving employees tins of Quality Street chocolates instead of cash for Christmas. The company said it had never paid a holiday bonus and that a December 2020 payout was in recognition of exceptional work during the pandemic. In 2019, it switched from paying an annual cash bonus to staff to a higher salary and wages were further increased last year. It also doubled the employee discount to 20% in the run-up to Christmas.
If businesses and employees alike can avoid the potential pitfalls, there’s nothing sweeter than that mid-morning slice of Victoria Sandwich or mid-morning cinnamon roll. To quote a former prime minister, “My policy on cake is to have it and to eat it.” Okay, Boris, but in moderation.
More from Bloomberg’s opinion:
• Not even dogs and cats can escape inflation: Andrea Felsted
Give the UK credit for one of the best pensioners in the world: Merryn Somerset Webb
• How a British town in decline changed its fortunes: Adrian Wooldridge
This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist on consumer goods and retail. Previously, she was a reporter for the Financial Times.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion