“Walking” the talk: Could our meetings be healthier?

By Marita Hennessy

In many of the disciplines I bridge – health psychology, public health, health promotion, nutrition – we’re interested in promoting and supporting positive health behaviours. Going to meetings, workshops, and conferences (locally, nationally, and if we’re lucky enough, internationally) are an inherent part of academia and we spend a lot of our time within such environments. But are these meetings healthy, or rather, are they as healthy as they could be?

Advocacy is an important part of our role as researchers

In this blog I hope to raise some issues around healthy meetings, and hopefully readers will think more critically about supporting/promoting healthier work environments. It is impossible to be all things to everyone when it comes to event planning (and resources at our disposal) but perhaps if we give more consideration to these issues it would be a good first step. Also, I think an important part of our role is not only to do good research, but to act as advocates also. So I’m advocating for healthier meetings (amongst many other things but that’s for another blog, or ten)! And by healthier, I mean meetings that support the broad definition of health adopted by the WHO: “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being…”.

My context for advocating for healthier meetings

I’m now into the second year of my PhD which is looking at interventions delivered by health professionals which aim to prevent childhood overweight/obesity. I have a background in nutrition and health promotion and have worked in jobs involving research, policy, and practice. I also spent four years working in the food industry after I finished my undergraduate degree in nutrition (this might come as a surprise to anyone who knows me and my views!). I have lots of experience of both attending and organising meetings – from team meetings, to workshops and conferences. Food provided at events (and room temperature) is a hot topic for discussion, both during events and on feedback forms afterwards, believe me!

Is the ‘healthy meeting’ concept nanny state?

Measures to promote population health are often labelled “nanny state”, with the introduction of a sugar tax in many counties worldwide being one of the most talked about at present. Recently, the WHO came out in favour of the introduction of fiscal measures such as sugar taxes and its Regional Office for the Western Pacific stopped the sale and service of sugary drinks in its cafeteria. I don’t agree with the concept of “nanny state”, at least in terms of how it is currently defined/portrayed: population health measures aren’t meant to limit individual freedom but rather promote a more level playing field and enable people to make healthier choices.

Tools/resources to promote healthy meetings

So where do you start when thinking about how healthy your meeting is, or could be? There are some good resources out there to support those interested in ‘healthy meetings’.

  • One of my favourites is from The Scottish Cancer Prevention Network (SCPN). They have developed a healthy meeting score card, which includes ten items signifying good practice for healthy meetings (it doesn’t aim to be a comprehensive listing). The checklist can be used by those attending meetings to help and encourage the provision of feedback to meeting organisers (it can also be sent to SCPN to feed into their research), or to act as a reminder of things you should consider if organising your own meeting.
  • The National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity in the US has developed a Healthy Meeting Toolkit with guidelines, a template resolution, and healthy meeting hacks, focused on four areas: nutrition, physical activity, sustainability, and tobacco-free.
  • World Obesity runs a Healthy Venues Accreditation Scheme whereby venues can apply for bronze, silver or gold status depending on the level at which they promote healthy eating and physical activity to their visitors and employees.

A good example of a healthy meeting

Closer to home, the Health Promotion Research Centre here in NUI Galway did a superb job of making the 2016 Annual Health Promotion Conference a healthy meeting. They provided lots of opportunities for delegates to be active during the day including guided activity breaks mid-sessions (a bit like this one from a recent Irish Men’s Sheds Celebration Conference), they had pedal bikes and mapped walks available over lunch, and plenty of healthy eating and drinking options on offer.

The scope of healthy meetings: too narrow?

You will notice that much of the healthy meeting criteria refer to nutrition and physical activity (including active travel)-related dimensions. These are important to consider; in fact, the increasing attention being paid to enhancing opportunities for people to be physically active/limit their time spent sedentary at meetings is to be welcomed. In their recently published report, the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland Policy Group on Physical Activity recommends that workplaces encourage walking/standing meetings where practical.

But should our definition of healthy meetings be more wide-ranging? I think it should: in line with the WHO definition above, and also incorporating dimensions such as equality (or equity where applicable), and ethics. Criteria I would add are:

  • How participative/inclusive are they? Do we enable as wide an audience as possible to engage in conferences we host? I am thinking:
    • We should encourage gender-balance in speakers and chairs (don’t fall foul of Academic Manel Watch!) and also participants. Many funding agencies now request this also.
    • Making meetings more family-friendly, e.g. times they are held, availability of childcare facilities.
    • What about those who cannot afford to pay full/part registration fees (and some can be quite expensive, even if subsidised/sponsored)?
    • What about the types of venues we hold our meetings in? Normally the default venue is a lecture theatre/room on campus (if based within a higher education institute) or a hotel. I was involved with an organisation called Healthy Food for All for a number of years. We hosted many of our events in community venues so money for venue hire and catering went into supporting non-profit social enterprises.
  • How supportive are they? Do they encourage respectful discussions/Q&A sessions? I have been at some conferences where speakers (often happens with early career researchers) were unduly grilled during Q&A sessions without reproach. Equally I think it’s challenging/disappointing when you don’t get asked a question after a presentation. Perhaps we should have guidelines for chairs to ensure that they promote more supportive Q&A sessions?
  • How sociable are they? I have been to a lot of conferences where the programme is packed and there is very little opportunity to network and develop collaborations. This is particularly true of international conferences where many start at 8am and may not finish until 8pm!
  • Industry sponsorship One thing that I am seriously grappling with in recent times (moreso than usual that is, for anyone who knows me) is whether I should engage in meetings that are sponsored by industry. The difficulty in my area is that so many of the meetings and training opportunities are heavily sponsored by industry. I have knowingly and unknowingly participated in such events, and felt uncomfortable both during and after. Over the summer I was fortunate to attend one conference which was not sponsored by industry: Nutrition and Nurture in Infancy and Childhood: Bio-Cultural Perspectives, at Dalarna University, Sweden. The conference organiser, the wonderful Associate Professor Renée Flacking, highlighted the lack of industry sponsorship and distraction at the conference, instead offering space for participants to focus on the research, how we could collaborate, and how we could influence practice. It was so refreshing! The issue of industry sponsorship and its impact on health professional behaviours was highlighted in a recent BBC One series “The Doctor Who Gave up Drugs”: A two-part social experiment with Dr Chris van Tulleken. In Episode 2, one of Dr van Tulleken’s quests was to remove drug company-sponsored monthly lunches at a surgery. He highlighted the instances where industry has been fined for bribing doctors and flagged his concerns about pharma companies having direct access to doctors (and the potential influence their prescribing behaviours). The doctors involved were adamant that their free monthly lunches didn’t affect their prescribing and that they resisted other drug company offers (leaflets, invites to evening meetings at nice restaurants – dinners to ski trips) but eventually ended the practice of industry-sponsored lunches. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine over the summer showed an association between receipt of industry-sponsored meals and physician prescribing. For anyone who is isn’t convinced about the links between industry sponsorship and research/practice outcomes, specifically in the food domain, Prof Marion Nestle’s blog Food Politics is worth checking out.

As always, it’s all about balance!

I think we need a healthy balance and promote environments which support people to engage in healthier behaviours, should they wish to do so. For example, I am a firm advocate for food and its role in socialisation. There is so much negativity around food – it should be a much more positive conversation. Food is about enjoyment, catching up with friends and family. I don’t think we should discourage the enjoyment of food at work, especially the delicacies that we bring back to our teams when we return from meetings/conferences abroad (and I’m not talking about the last-minute pyramid-shaped chocolate purchases at airports!). The cocoa dusted macademia nuts that Prof Jane Speight from the Australian Centre for Behavioural Research in Diabetes brought to our meeting on her recent visit to NUI Galway were particularly delicious! These were however balanced by a range of healthy sandwiches/wrap options and a boat-sized bowl of delicious chopped fruits.


Putting healthy meetings into practice: Walking the talk

In case you’re thinking that real academics don’t take these things seriously, then please note that Prof Trisha Greenhlagh recently introduced talk-walks instead of office meetings and also has colleagues who like to talk-biking! When I mentioned that I would like to write a blog on healthy meetings at our last blog meeting, the idea was met with much enthusiasm; there was a little less enthusiasm when team member Dr Elaine Toomey suggested we stand for the rest of our meeting. But we did it and hopefully this will continue. I don’t have photographic evidence but hopefully will capture at our next one!

So, to conclude, here are some things you can consider to “walk-the-talk” and advocate for healthy meetings:

  • Promote/advocate for opportunities for attendees to engage in healthy behaviours
  • Give feedback to organisers of events you attend
  • Share your experiences of good practices, and areas for improvement.

Please share your examples/experiences of meetings (healthy or otherwise) with us here at the blog team via Twitter or Facebook – tag us using @HealthPsychNUIG and #healthymeetings.


PS I have to give special mention to Dr Gary Raine (Centre for Men’s Health, Leeds Beckett University) and Dr Samantha Dockray (Applied Psychology, University College Cork) for reminding me of some of the resources mentioned in this post!




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