We’ve just had Valentine’s Day and today (17th February) it’s Random Act of Kindness Day (or Random Act of Kindness Week, depending on the website you look at). Whether you’re a cynic or a softie, these events bring the glow of love and kindness to a gloomy month when coronavirus, flooding and tragedy pervade the news

But kindness isn’t just for February and it’s not just for loved ones; it’s valuable for society and our health, including at work.  Research shows that people who perform acts of kindness are more satisfied with their lives (1), happier (2, 3), and have higher peer acceptance and well-being (4). So, with workplaces increasingly focused on health and well-being, kindness definitely has a role. 

How can we extend kindness to work colleagues?

You’ll be able to think of many ways, but this article focuses on those traditional standbys, cakes and chocolates and, controversially, aims to persuade you that they’re not always considered kindly gifts.

Just for a second let’s think what we mean by kind. Google says “friendly, generous, and considerate” and The Cambridge English Dictionary definition is  “generous, helpful and caring about other people” somewhat similar to that provided by the Collins Dictionary (“gentle, caring and helpful”).

Considerate and caring?

A tray of brownies or a box of chocolates at work is usually meant as a friendly and generous gesture. But is it considerate or caring? Is it considerate to overweight colleagues who are trying to lose weight? You’ll have colleagues who aren’t overweight but also don’t want to be. For people with diabetes, sugar is a serious health risk, and often, people are just too shy to suggest having it less often or worried about causing offence if they refuse.  

If you’re a manager or leader you’ll care about the health of your team for many reasons. As the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development) says, “Looking after people’s health and well-being is the right thing to do”(5).  Government reports agree that our physical surroundings influence our health (6, 7) and that “all workplaces should address the prevention and management of obesity, because of the considerable impact on the health of the workforce” (8).  Therefore, is it caring or helpful to supply or encourage hard-to-resist sugary, nutrient-free stuff which contributes to weight gain, and makes it hard to eat healthily at work or stick to a weight loss diet (9)? Excess sugar is closely linked to obesity and poor dietary habits which in turn impact on other lifestyle conditions such as heart disease, type two diabetes and cancers, as well as  mental ill-health conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease (10) and depression (11).  

“If it’s there, I eat it”

Some lucky people can take it or leave it, but workplace research shows that if cake is available, almost everyone eats it at least sometimes and nearly half do so often/always (9).  The same study found over a third never refuse it. Humans are programmed to notice and seek out food, especially sweet, energy-dense food (12). So people who eat cake when it’s put in front of them aren’t weak or greedy – they’re normal human beings, as are the two thirds of the UK population who are overweight or have obesity (13). We live in an obesogenic (obesity-generating) society where obesity is the inevitable result of people responding naturally to the environments they find themselves in (14).  

When we spend more time at work than with our family and friends, employers have a terrific opportunity to make a real difference to public health. One of the most considerate things they could do would be to take steps to remove the sugar from our workplaces to make them less obesogenic. When our TVs, social media and high streets constantly urge us to consume more food more often, the workplace could give us a few hours’ respite and make it easier to avoid sugary processed food. Most (95%) office workers think once a week or less is ideal for office cake (9) so this proposition might not be so hard to achieve. It’s worth a conversation. It would make workplace health and well-being initiatives more effective, too.

So many other options

If we want to show colleagues we appreciate them and care about them, it might be easy to use cake or chocolate but there are so many other options. Why not brainstorm ideas? Write a note or email of appreciation or thanks. Say thank you or give positive feedback. Notice when staff are struggling and offer a hand or supportive word?  What about time as a thank you – a lie-in, longer lunch or earlier home time?  Gift voucher? Special parking spot?

The options are endless  and there are more ideas for gifts of kindness (including giving forward). Putting the cake funds towards a charity for feeding those less fortunate will seem more comfortable for many … on the SCPN website there are many great ideas. https://www.cancerpreventionscotland.org.uk/giving-with-health-in-mind/

In a world where you can be anything …. Be kind

Lou Walker is health coach specialising in weight management and workplace health. You can access her research into workplace cake culture and download a free report and infographics on www.louwalker.com/research.


1. Buchanan KE, Bardi A. Acts of Kindness and Acts of Novelty Affect Life Satisfaction. The Journal of Social Psychology. 2010;150(3):235-7.

2. Otake K, Shimai S, Tanaka-Matsumi J, Otsui K, Fredrickson BL. HAPPY PEOPLE BECOME HAPPIER THROUGH KINDNESS: A COUNTING KINDNESSES INTERVENTION. J Happiness Stud. 2006;7(3):361-75.

3. Rowland L, Curry OS. A range of kindness activities boost happiness. The Journal of Social Psychology. 2019;159(3):340-3.

4. Layous K, Nelson SK, Oberle E, Schonert-Reichl KA, Lyubomirsky S. Kindness Counts: Prompting Prosocial Behavior in Preadolescents Boosts Peer Acceptance and Well-Being. PLOS ONE. 2012;7(12):e51380.

5. Chartered Institute for Personnel & Development. Health and Wellbeing at Work. 2019.

6. Black C. Working for a healthier tomorrow. 2008.

7.Department of Health and Social Care. Prevention is better than cure. Our vision to help you live well for longer.; 2018.

8. National Institute for Clinical and Care Excellence (NICE). Workplace prevention: obesity interventions. 2020.

9. Walker L, Flannery O. Office cake culture: An exploration of its characteristics, associated behaviours and attitudes among UK office workers; implications for workplace health. International Journal of Workplace Health Management. 2020;13(1):95-115.

10.         Berger A. 2020. Available from: https://asweetlife.org/the-connection-between-type-2-diabetes-and-alzheimers-disease/?fbclid=IwAR03qeF1lU6Ncw-a-H7jZUrcNNTz4Uc0Yv_vD3FszTOm9RCLkkF6nc4rNKY.

11.         Reis DJ, Ilardi SS, Namekata MS, Wing EK, Fowler CH. The depressogenic potential of added dietary sugars. Medical Hypotheses. 2020;134:109421.

12.         Mas M, Brindisi M-C, Chabanet C, Nicklaus S, Chambaron S. Weight Status and Attentional Biases Toward Foods: Impact of Implicit Olfactory Priming. Frontiers in Psychology. 2019;10(1789).

13.         Public Health England. Health matters: obesity and the food environment. 2017.

14.         Swinburn BA, Sacks G, Hall KD, McPherson K, Finegood DT, Moodie ML, et al. The global obesity pandemic: shaped by global drivers and local environments. Lancet. 2011;378(9793):804-14.

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