It’s a winter’s Tuesday, everyone at the office is casually grinding through their work the same way they usually do. The mood is the regular dull quiet with a hushed conversation happening at one desk between two colleagues. The buzz of phone calls and emails being typed occupy the senses, when the manager walks out of their office and calls everyone into the breakroom just before lunch.
The last employee walks through the door bearing a supermarket bought birthday cake laden with a few lit candles. Sheepishly, a light burst of happy birthday song ripples through the room and the mood suddenly starts to cheer up a bit. The smiling employees exchange glances with the individual celebrating their birthday and wish many happy returns. Grateful for the brief break in the mundane tasks of work, they each take a piece of cake and have a bit of chatter.
Seemingly, this little tradition doesn’t only help make the birthday person feel celebrated or even valued, but also provides the whole office with some needed respite. Although, I may have painted a somewhat rosy picture of an otherwise albeit thoughtful, but rather dull affair, there are those who find the whole office birthday celebrations tedious or to be a waste of time and would rather just continue going about their work.
I get that. Some people just want to get on with their day, finish their work and go home and not necessarily socialize with the rest of their colleagues. And of course, the cake provided is usually a not so exciting standard supermarket off the shelf bought cake. It’s also in general not very healthy, full of sugar and if you really care about it, a waste of calories. But to take the choice away altogether, and going as far as to comparing it to second hand smoke, may be taking it a bit far.
Over the top comparisons seems to be the object of the day these days. It definitely makes a good headline, and a good headline means a whole load of clicks. Just as an example, you’ve got The Daily Mail with a headline of “Bringing cake into the office is as harmful to colleagues as second hand smoking” with other outlets pretty much running along the same lines. And of course there are the ones which site the experts starting the conversation with “expert warns” as their attention gripping headline hook.
Reading further down the article, the expert, Professor Susan Jebb who is the chairwoman of the UK’s Food Standard Agency, admits that it is in fact the individual’s choice similar to the choice of going into a smoky pub. However, she is also quoted, saying that “if nobody brought cakes into the office, I wouldn’t eat cakes in the day – but because people do bring cakes in, I eat them.” In other words, her eating of the cake is the fault of it being brought into the office. Do you really have to eat it because it’s there?
This is where the comparison breaks down. When you walk into a smoky establishment, you get second hand smoke no matter what you do there. There is no escaping it. There is no saying no. But with the cake in the office, you can still choose not to eat it even if you are in the office. The choice is still yours even once you’re in the establishment which is completely different to the second hand smoke. And this is in itself the extremely significant distinction.
This is the distinction that not only undermines the comparison being made, but is also, I believe, the cause of why there is an issue with cake in the first place. Everyone at the office will be dealing with different issues and very common among them would be eating disorders. So yes, it’s very probable that at least one colleague would have a hard time with the cake being there and not eating it for one reason or another. And yes, we should sympathize with and be sensitive to someone who has a food disorder or has a challenge with this. But that is what we should be focusing on. Not the existence of the cake, surely.
Aside from the other colleagues who won’t benefit from the respite the birthday celebration brings, by taking away the choice, we aren’t making the disorder disappear. In fact, it’s just the opposite. We are hiding from the disorder instead of helping those who need it, help them through it or help them strengthen their resolve in such circumstances. Because the office isn’t the only place that cake is available and this won’t just stop at or be limited to cake either.
It could be that I am completely wrong here or being completely insensitive as someone who was extremely overweight, would eat pretty much anything, and worked bloody hard on myself and self-control to be able to say no to cake. Maybe I’m seeing it from the lens of someone who has been there, but made the changes to my attitude, mindset, and discipline to change my habits. Because, I don’t know, maybe not everyone can do it, is something I hear a lot. But that’s where I believe the help should be and not just taking away the choice for everyone.
I know from experience that it’s not always easy to say no. But why is it that we jump so easily to bandage over the problem rather than help work on the difficulty itself? One shouldn’t be punished for having an eating disorder, looked at in a negative way, nor should they be ridiculed in any way. But instead of just saying the problem is the cake, maybe we can find a way to help the individual deal with the cake. This would then help them even when they are out of the office and there’s cake in front of them.
Everyone is different. And to prove my point several radio hosts picked up this headline and had call ins on the topic. From the calls I heard, it was a complete mixed bag. One caller said that they lost weight when the pandemic hit and they started working from home because they had no colleagues constantly offering to pick up some baked goods for them as they popped to the local Greggs during the working day. On the other hand, another caller said that they actually started eating much more junk food when they started working from home because there was no one there watching them and judging them.
The second caller shows that the choice isn’t made for you just because the cake is put in front of you in the office. In fact, both of these callers have a deeper concern than just cake being in front of them. The first caller couldn’t say no and the second caller only said no because people were watching. Hence, we see that the issue here isn’t the existence of the cake. And when we chose to blame the cake, not only does that effect everyone around who may be fit, healthy, worked on their self-control and without a disorder, but it also neglects the real concern which is the disorder itself. It only weakens the plight of the individual who finds it hard to say no.
You see, with the smoky establishment, the choice is when entering after which, there is no more choice. But with cake in the office, it’s the complete opposite. You may not have a choice about going in, but you do have a choice, as difficult as it may be, when it comes to the eating of the cake. And that my friends, is the important distinction. It is the continuous denial of this distinction that is the real problem here. The solution offered always seems to be to treat the symptoms instead of the cause.