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sometimes, radical’s the only way to go

July 26, 2010

in communication,wellness

refresh yourself, restore our world.

the placard beside my westin heavenly dual-showerhead informed me that one shower head was turned off to lessen my shower’s environmental impact but could be turned back on with the push of a little button.

at 6 a.m., it was too early to deal with saving the world. two seconds and the decision was made. dual shower heads, baby! bring on that steamy hot water to coddle me into a more alert state.

their messaging and choice architecture should’ve driven me to do the right thing. they appealed to my sense of identity, or who i’d like to believe i am: an environmentally-conscious consumer. and by setting the shower head to the optimal default position for the world (and themselves), i needed to actively choose to change course, considering all the while how better people than i were sacrificing their dual massage to sustain our planet.

if westin truly wants to be green, or to just save bucks, the other option is to replace their luxury dual shower heads with ordinary single heads. and to go with low-flow toilets. those are big-ticket items and potentially controversial with those devoted to their heavenly items. likely, they backed away from the tough decision and decided to start with influencing through other means. the hazard is that they may not reap the rewards they want, or as quickly. a quick survey of my four fellow travelers found that only one didn’t press the button. the rest joined me in going eco-rogue.

sometimes, you need to be radical. despite good messaging and sound design, we still crave what we crave. and if the choice is there, we opt for it. the same is true with employee wellness efforts. if you’re serving up hostess sno balls in the vending machine, featuring a KFC double-down equivalent in your cafeteria, and offering a spot for tobacco breaks, you’re also backing away from the tough decision. shift the playing field enough that the only choice you offer is the one you stand behind.

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

mark July 26, 2010 at 10:08 am

this is that whole nudge philosophy — which is very fascinating. but i say, if you ENJOYED the double shower head, then it was worth it. if you did it mindlessly just because you could and left the shower running while you brushed your teeth in front of the sink, THEN it was a waste (and enviro-karma will strike you one day). same view i have w/ food — if you ENJOY those four oreoes or that slice of cheesecake, good for you. as long as you take the time to enjoy food like that (in moderation, of course, and not every day) and don’t mindlessly shove food in your mouth just because it’s there, it’s worth it.

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Rueben July 26, 2010 at 10:38 am

So true, fran. My org offers a highly successful smoking cessation support program for our employees, and municipal bylaws don’t allow smoking within 30 feet of our office buildings. But what do you find out behind a few buildings outside the 30-foot zone? “Smoking tents” – pavilion type tents set up with big concrete ashtrays under them for employees needing a smoke break out of the rain or sun. And why do we have these smoking tents? Well, I’m told it’s because the oocupational health and safety committees in those buildings recommended them.

A while back, my boss asked me to find out how to get rid of the tents. I met with so many hurdles I set it aside. But your post has inspired me to get back to that issue. It’s just stupid. If you want to quit smoking, we’ll help you with that because we see all the benefits to us as an employer. But at the same time we’ll provide a nice sheltered place for you to smoke on the property. Makes total sense to somebody I’m sure.

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Paul Hebert July 26, 2010 at 5:02 pm

You knew I’d be here on this…

So if I can sum up the post… “because I don’t have will-power, or just want to do what I want – we need to eliminate that option so I can only do it the way someone else think I should.”

This sounds just like the folks in California trying to make it illegal to include toys in kids meals at McDonald’s because the Mom’s don’t have the guts to say no to their kids. So now, if I want to treat my kids once a month to McDonald’s and the toys – I don’t have that option because someone else decided it was bad for me.

Not that I’m against saving the planet – just against the idea that one person or group of people can decide what all the others should or have the option of doing. As Mark said – the way the shower option was initially presented is a “nudge” strategy. And it was a good one.

But the way I read this because you made the decision to not be nudged the option of the high-water flow should be eliminated. I should suffer because you couldn’t resist?

This why some good ideas for the environment and health and wellness get stalled – the elimination of choice isn’t the right answer. Education and “nudges” – changing the social frame – is the answer. It may not be fast enough for some but it is the only way in which the individual’s rights can be respected.

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fran July 26, 2010 at 5:21 pm

@mark oh, i enjoyed that shower. and i certainly agree with you about moderation. i am a three times a day dessert girl. (yes, breakfast does deserve its own dessert.) they’re just small desserts. however, i don’t think this needs to be granted me by my employer. that’s where i differ from you and paul/@incentintel. why does a company need to offer unhealthy fare? if they are focused on improving the health of their employees, why shouldn’t they take a stand and move in that direction in a big way? for one thing, they look far less hypocritical and remove the (sometimes laughable) disconnects between the donuts at meetings and the wellness messages on the web and in the lunch rooms. i’m not saying completely give up on the nudges and education. they are definitely effective, and in some ways they are the only way when you consider legalities. i don’t see this as stripping away people’s rights. if an employee wants, they have the right to bring in the sno balls or tastykake. or, in the dual shower head situation, consumers can go elsewhere that’s still heavenly. as for mcdonald’s, i refuse to go there.

@rueben, i’m glad the post inspired you to go back to the drawing board. some of my clients have also run into difficulties going tobacco free, particularly around safety concerns. if people have to leave the campus or cross a road to meet the distance requirements, that becomes a hazard. let me know how it goes.

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Tammy Colson July 26, 2010 at 5:25 pm

I think I have to agree with Paul on this one.

It is important for us to make sound decisions for our bodies, our minds, our wallets and our karma…but the key there is making the decisions for ourselves. Women, minorities, those of a non-heterosexual orientation, and non-christians have lived in THIS country for many years with someone making decisions for us about our lives in one form or another. As we start to reach a point where those things are no longer happening with such veracity, we enter into a whole different set of “we know what’s best for you”…

Sometimes I see this in the workplace as “we don’t have control over much, so lets control lifestyles” – I want to see people healthier and more educated on lifestyle choices in the companies I work with, but me forcing those choices isn’t going to get them to change their lifestyles, only they can do that. At what point will we see companies refusing to hire anyone above a certain BMI, just like companies are trending towards hiring non-smokers (and testing for it) under the auspices of lower insurance premiums?

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Paul Hebert July 26, 2010 at 5:27 pm

Sorry – Fran – I do agree that a public company has the right to determine what they offer as food at their locations. If they want healthy – then by all means – eliminate the sno-balls. I do agree there. I don’t agree with removing the rights in the free market. When you decide to work for a company that’s your choice – go to work where they make sno-balls – guessing they have them in the vending machines.

As you said – you can choose not to go to McDs. And – if a hotel thinks they can make a go of it as 100% green – go for it – that’s the market in action.

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Frank Roche July 26, 2010 at 5:51 pm

I’m gonna jump in here. Paul, you talked about the free market. It is in a hotel. They could make a principled decision to cut water consumption. They could give no choice. Then…you can choose to stay there or not. It’s a free market. (And I hardly subscribe to your description of “suffering” because some Westin that you likely never stayed at would or would not have a dual shower head.)

Tami, I think it’s about the path, to use the Heaths’ description from Switch. Don’t provide things that you know are bad. Seriously, people have choices at work — they can pack their lunch, for example. I’m sure that “[w]omen, minorities, those of a non-heterosexual orientation, and non-christians” all have choices about where they eat lunch. They’re not in a gulag — they can bring lunch or go out if a company’s healthy fare is too paternalistic. (I do think that part about those groups is a red herring, by the way.)

Yes, companies pay for health insurance, or pay directly. There is a direct relationship between having healthy people and profit — even if it just means a company spends less on premiums. I own a small business with 18 employees. I know full well the the fully-loaded costs of carrying health insurance. And you can bet that we talk a lot at our shop about people getting preventative care. Annual checkups. We have a chef who prepares healthy food. And we don’t have complaints for her to make more junk food.

It’s weird — I don’t think 3.6 gallon/flush toilets and Pringles for lunch are God-given rights for employees. I could be wrong. (But I don’t think so.)

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Tammy Colson July 26, 2010 at 6:06 pm

Frank,
I’m not saying any of these things are god given rights. Far from it, its personal choice, and I have no more “right” to dictate your habits, as you do mine.

I stay in LEEDS certified hotels when the option is available (reference to original post), I rarely eat junk food and live a relatively healthy lifestyle that affords me lower insurance costs, without any employer or government telling me that its the thing I have to do.

Companies do not have to provide anything, quite frankly. Sno-balls or otherwise. The free market will bear out which employers are competitive in the market, just as it will bear out which companies consumers will spend money on, depending on individual choices.

The argument I put forth above is more in line with the idea of governments telling us how to live, and enacting laws that govern individual choice. And when companies get into the business of dictating lifestyle, they tend to get distracted from the business at hand. Encourage, but don’t insist. We can’t change people. They have to want to change their own habits.

I applaud companies that make changes to encourage better habits, but I have trouble with those that go “radical” and make rules that dictate personal behavior that truly have no bearing on the work to be done.

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Paul Hebert July 26, 2010 at 6:08 pm

I think we’re all saying exactly the same thing…

If I want to stay in a hotel with all green amenities I can. If I don’t I won’t. I also agree that companies should charge more for unhealthy behaviors and be able to hire/fire for those behaviors. I also think I can decide as a company – what to offer in my cafeteria. All of that I agree with.

Where I get concerned is when it becomes an issue of public policy and regulation – that is where the issue of rights and restrictions starts to get weird and “unhealthy.”

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Frank Roche July 26, 2010 at 6:18 pm

Okay, so this is the libertarian part of the argument. I understand it. Let me ask this: Say we know something kills hundreds of thousands of people a year. Let’s say it’s smoking. Can you ever imagine a world in which we say, “Hey, no more smoking. Smoking is illegal”? I can. (It killed both of my parents — my dad with lung cancer; my mom with emphysema.)

We live with regulations all the time — it’s just that we like some and not others. Personally, I’d like to see drugs be legalized. All of them. Stop the black market. Keep lots more inner city African-American men alive and out of prisons.

I am curious about companies that have “gone radical” and are dictating lifestyles. I know of some that encourage people to work themselves to the bone — law firms, consulting firms, the GEs of the world. I know others that encourage their employees to go out and run at lunch (Nike comes to mind). Others give them Skittles — Google. What would be radical?

All companies compete for talent. People are free to come and go. If employees don’t like what’s happening — leave. Or be vocal. Get things changed. I get that people don’t want the company in their “business.” Except, hmmm, is it okay to drug test your employees? If so, why? That seems awful invasive to me. I can think about a number of examples in that realm.

Let’s keep this convo going. I’m interested. This is good thinking. And thanks to Fran for the cool thought starter and the forum to talk!

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Bob Merberg July 26, 2010 at 6:27 pm

Great post, Fran. I think you and your readers are in the process of sorting something out here. The relationship between the hotel and its customers isn’t quite the same as the relationship between the employer and the ee. Refraining from providing sno-balls and ho-hos to employees has little to do with choice. An employer doesn’t have a responsibility to provide junk food to its employees. In fact, as an employee wellness advocate, I’d say that an employer has a responsibility not to provide those things. The employee still has choice. You wanna bring sno-balls to work? Go for it. But, as an employer, if I’m providing them, then I’m not really creating a healthy environment. It’s contradictory to provide ergonomic furniture, fitness centers, onsite health clinics, super-appealing stairwells, pedometers, and all the rest, and then tempt employees with harmful processed junk food. With all due respect to the eloquently expressed opinions here, I think the “choice” argument is a bit of a knee-jerk reaction fostered by American’s inherently libertarian nature. This is about creating a culture of health, not limiting choice.
As for the hotel…if they cared, sure, they’d yank out the second shower head. I’m in a hotel now, and, honestly, I’d prefer to have the liberty to open my dang window rather than use two shower heads. But if I want, next time I can check-in someplace where the water trickles but the windows fly free. 😉

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Paul Hebert July 26, 2010 at 6:28 pm

These conversations always intrigue me – I like to see how others think.

My take is that my rights should extend until my fist hits your face – as much as we can.

I know smoking kills (killed my dad too – lung cancer.) I also think drunk driving kills. One is legal – one is not. Now… we can argue whether the first should be. If someone wanted to introduce a product today with the same specs as tobacco they’d have a rough time getting it approved. But… as long as it is legal – and I don’t submit you to 2nd hand smoke – I should have the right.

Any product (or insert anything you want here) has the potential to be a negative – over eating or even over exercising – but you can’t police those any more than wellness can be “policed” on an individual, behavioral basis.

I like the idea of letting companies and talent self-organize around the policies and values of each. You end up with what you deserve.

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WhenWellnessSucks July 27, 2010 at 1:01 am

Ok here comes waaaaaayyyyy tooo long of a response but…I think the obsession that we have with choice is a peculiarly American idea. I am not saying we should provide rations and force people to stand in lines, but an anecdote that sums it up for me is: a friend of mine was an educated, erudite Euro male living in Sarajevo. War broke out. He was forced to jump out of a building window to avoid being shot. He stepped over bodies of people who’d been shot by snipers and were lying in the streets. He escaped to Slovakia. He was later granted asylum in the US and brought his mother and sister over.

These were highly educated, cosmopolitan people used to a high standard of living. Prior to the war they were not living in a hovel or starving in some dark corner of the world. But one day his mother, in this foreign country away from the war, broke down crying in the supermarket ketchup aisle. Just across the ocean people she loved were dead and dying. People who were once neighbors were being bullied by thugs in the name of ethnic cleanings. While here people were agonizing over their right to choose one of myriad brands of smooshed up tomatoes. I think we beat the freedom of choice thing to death. Raise your hand if you think our forefathers really fought for our right to choose a happy meal toy or a cafeteria burger versus a salad. Hmmm, no one? Ok. I agree with Frank. If my company says no to burgers and if you think that is a dealbreaker then good freaking riddance to you, homeslice. I don’t think restricting toilet tank sizes or banning smoking on work sites is the first step in the erosion of the free market foundation of American industry.

I think good management is about sending clear messages and integrity to values. I have seen Oregon employers with wellness programs who have set up smoking tents (as someone mentions above) while people who bike commute to work are forced to park their bikes in the pouring rain. What message does that send? People who eat junk food offered don’t necessarily lack willpower.

It wasn;t long ago that our ancestors’ food expenditure on an average day was vast compared to the density of calories in food (i.e. forage, roam or farm all day for food that ultimately is relatively low in calories). our body hasn’t adapted to the changes industrial farming have brought (i.e. we don’t have to do squat and we have access to highly calorie dense food). So our bodies still want high fat, high calorie foods. Taking junk foods out of cafeterias when you have a wellness program is not paternalistic. It is saying, “We have put a lot of effort into trying to help everyone live longer and better. We know these foods don’t support that goal and that our body is wired to crave them regardless. By offering healthy choices we are putting our money where our moith is and being consistent with our message.” If someone wants a cheeseburger they can buy it on their way home with the money their employer paid them.

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fran July 27, 2010 at 6:58 am

amazing conversation. thank you for contributing. i only want to make a few points:

most of this conversation has focused on choice and whether or not that choice should play out in the office. we let the office dictate, mostly in very unhealthy ways, all of the time. i think the real problem here is that this focus on our health – what we eat, whether we smoke, if we participate in a personal counseling program for diabetes — is very new at work. and it’s waaayyyy uncomfortable for many. but as i’ve argued before, as long as companies are involved in our health care, then they have a right to make changes at work. and that’s whether or not they are focused on wellness to contain health care costs or for something bigger (happy, focused, feeling good employees). personally, i’d take a company that says they’re about wellness and *shows* me that they are, then one that asks me to make the hard changes alone.

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fran July 27, 2010 at 7:26 am

one other thing. tammy, you mentioned that people need to want to change. there’s good evidence that we can help direct that change with things like taxes. read this great article from psychology today on what happens when mothers need to buy taxed unhealthy food or subsidized healthy food. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ulterior-motives/201004/do-taxes-high-calorie-foods-work

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Paul Hebert July 27, 2010 at 7:50 am

fran – I think we agree on the “what should” be happening but disagree on the “how.” There is a lot of evidence that taxes as incentives and “dis-incentives work. Unfortunately, this is where I think we part ways.

I don’t think our tax code should be used in this way. It’s a slippery slope that I’d rather stay off of. Today it’s high-fructose drinks – tomorrow – it could be hamburger (who really needs the 80/20 stuff – the 85/15 ground chuck is just as good and less fat – let’s put a fat tax on hamburger.)

I think we all want the results you’re talking about – I just don’t really want our government leading that charge. I know I’m not smart enough to figure it out completely – and lord knows most of the 535 folks we elect each year aren’t.

“Many politicians are in the habit of laying it down as a self-evident proposition that no people ought to be free till they are fit to use their freedom. The maxim is worthy of the fool in the old story who resolved not to go into the water till he had learned to swim. ~Thomas Macaulay”

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fran July 27, 2010 at 1:40 pm

taxes. you know i’m REALLY not going there.

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Paul Hebert July 27, 2010 at 1:42 pm

let’s not – i’d rather remain friends – may need someone to drink with in Philly some day.

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fran July 27, 2010 at 1:43 pm

in philly, we drink with our enemies. it’s safer. 😉
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mark July 27, 2010 at 12:04 pm

i think education is the magic solution. because w/out education, WhenWellnessSucks, that employee WILL stop for a chesseburger (supersize w/ fries and a side of ranch, please) on the way home, still be unhealthy and STILL rack up high claims costs for the employer. in fact, it may be worse than if the food wasn’t viewed as “forbidden”, because then employees get mad, and their ego wants to “get even” w/ “the man,” so they shove as much junk food in their mouth when they’re not at work to REALLY show “the man” how they feel — because it feels good to be bad.

but if there’s education along w/ a VERY stong emphasis at the workplace on healthy options (e.g., no donuts for meetings, 90 percent of cafeteria options are healthy), the person learns why making healthy choices is the better. give me fish vs. teach me to fish.

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fran July 27, 2010 at 1:41 pm

sorry, mark. i need to respectfully disagree that education’s the silver bullet. many of us know what we need to do and still don’t do it, for a variety of reasons. sometimes we need a nudge, sometimes we need more than a nudge.

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WhenWellnessSucks July 27, 2010 at 2:33 pm

I am with Fran, here. I’ve actually done surveys in companies about this. Here is a typical question/response (n=160 multistate employer with more than 50% response rate to survey).

Q: In your experience what are the top two challenges to a healthy lifestyle?
A:
1% answered “What’s in it for me?”
13% answered “Lack of knowledge (about nutrition, fitness, etc.)
17% answered Other (most of the comments mentioned lack of money)
40% answered “Easy to Forget/Hard to Prioritize”
56% answered “Hard to Get Motivated”
58% answered “Don’t Have Time”

Note that lack of information was rarely at issue. People eat junk food because it is fast and convenient. They do not exercise or cook because they spend the majority of waking hours at work and commuting. The place they spend the majority of their days doesn’t do much to help with the issue of motivation or increasing time that can be spent behaving in healthy ways. That is a problem.

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fran July 27, 2010 at 8:04 pm

hmmm. the “here” implies we’re not in agreement elsewhere?

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WhenWellnessSucks July 27, 2010 at 11:50 pm

Remains to be seen 😛

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