New lunch is feeding the workplace bullies

Question: I’ve tried to start eating healthy – at home and at work. I’ve started eating several pieces of fresh fruit every day and at my desk for lunch I eat a salad of mostly beans, lentils, nuts and lettuce. I eat fish once or twice a week.

A few of my colleagues are very supportive, but some haven’t been. A few are just a bit over-curious, but one or two have made nasty jokes and what I would describe as disparaging remarks. It’s not a big deal, but I’d love some advice on what to do.

Eating healthily at work.
Eating healthily at work.Credit:iStockphoto

Answer: I once made a very similar decision to you. I came to the conclusion I was eating poorly at work and should change things. Being lazy and unimaginative when it came to lunch, I would buy a bag of carrots and a tub of relatively healthy dip from the nearby supermarket in the morning. Then, at around midday I’d take them out of the fridge and begin fifteen minutes of intense crunching. I did this for days in a row, and for weeks on end.

Like you, my diet gained the attention of people around me. Unlike you, I can see in hindsight that my choice was eccentric at best, and probably flat-out weird; I definitely brought the raised eyebrows, sniggers and light-hearted commentary on myself.


That is to say, I’ve been through a comparable experience to you, but not the same one.

Unlike my carrot frenzy, what you’ve described doesn’t sound odd at all. Yes, it might look out of place in a culture that conditions people to consider processed and low-nutrition foods as not only acceptable but desirable and sometimes even “healthy”. (As recently as a couple of years ago, Milo was displaying a Health Star Rating score of 4.5 … out of 5.) But, really, to anyone who takes even the slightest interest in the facts about what broadly constitutes good and bad food, your switch to more legumes, nuts and fish should seem entirely sensible.

My advice would be to let the over-curious co-workers gawk and appraise to their heart’s content. I’m not condoning busybodying but I’m confident that their interest will peter out. Some will be genuinely interested in your changed food choices and that novelty will inevitably wane; others are probably stickybeaks who feed off the reaction their prying elicits, so don’t give them any food.

Illustration: John Shakespeare
Illustration: John Shakespeare Credit:

The gibe-throwers and comment-makers may be more of a challenge. As we often say in Work Therapy, the best way of dealing with them will depend on all sorts of determinants: whether the antagonists are true bullies or are the kind of tactless buffoons who inadvertently cause angst; how much skin you’re prepared to lose in a confrontation; whether this really is no big deal or is something that may end up getting you down, and so on.

You could try laughing along. I know from experience that it works, but I also know in my case my behaviour was worthy of laughter and my colleagues had no ill intentions. Yours isn’t, though, and it sounds like those initiating this attack may be more spiteful than mirthful.

You could try moving away from the perpetrators when you eat your lunch – into another area of your office or outside. This may feel like a kind of surrender to poor behaviour – like the tormentors have won – but it solves your problem at (presumably) only a small cost of convenience.

You could also try telling those being unpleasant that their actions are hurtful. This always feels to me like the kind of advice you got from unhelpful teachers at primary school – the difference here is you’re not a child. Even if those being obnoxious have retained their year-4 maturity level, this option may still work because your grown-up logic and assertiveness will overwhelm their juvenility.

Then there’s retaliation, which is naturally not an option at all. I would, of course, never suggest that you tell the uneducated clods giving you grief that you mistakenly assumed most people stopped eating brightly coloured, sugar-laden cereal for lunch in their mid teens or that their overcooked dim sims smell like the flatus of the archetypal dodgy uncle.

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