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sign, sign, everywhere a sign. do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

October 26, 2010

in health communication,wellness

there’s no doubt that we have a lot of unhealthy people in the U.S. workforce—and more set to enter it at some point. disease management, acute risk and wellness efforts are trying to tackle the situation with services that require employees to make major adjustments to their day-to-day routine. i sometimes despair over the effectiveness of these efforts. i’m not sure that they alone can do the trick. what’s needed, really, are seismic environmental and social changes. but we can’t wait for that. so, i try to think small—and across boundaries. what’s working elsewhere that we can co-opt? what do we know works but we’re not doing? today’s post is a glimpse into my wondering if we can make headway with the simple, ordinary sign.

going up? most office buildings tuck stairs away to maximize usable office space and limit their use to fire drills, yet climbing stairs is a low-cost, low-fuss way to add regular, light exercise to our day. newer buildings reflect this knowledge, redesigning stair space so that it’s open, inviting and part of the work flow. renovating your office space may not be within your budget or your control (ditto for adding piano stairs). but that doesn’t mean you can’t increase stair traffic. research shows that hanging signs to redirect people from the elevators to the stairs has a positive impact on stair use. drawing people to the stairs with music and rotating artwork? even more so.

eat. drink. smile. restaurants and food chains are posting nutrition information to better guide people’s purchases, or at least inform them of the caloric damage before they chomp down on that 500-calorie raspberry scone. as we know from the struggle to nail food labeling, it’s not all that simple. information does not necessarily translate into new behaviors, and providing information that’s actually usable is tougher still. traffic light labeling. eat this/not that. a simple smiley face. these visual cues are working elsewhere, both with food and with other consumer products. could these same visual cues make eating healthy a little less work and direct motivated people to the healthier cafeteria choices?

add some cachet to parking far away. whenever i arrive at IKEA’s corporate headquarters, i’m struck by who gets the choice parking spots. they’re not held for visitors or the big man on campus. they’re held for employees in hybrids or carpools. it’s a subtle wnever ever park hereay to emphasize IKEA’s corporate stance on sustainability. what about emphasizing a corporate commitment to health? could it work to flip choice parking on its head and make the choice parking the parking that’s farthest away? of course, we all know the tip about taking the spot farthest from the entrance, but who does it? (i know. you do.) more may be needed here, such as a combo of cleverly-written custom signs and related perks.

drink H²O. everyone else’s doing it. signs in hotel rooms convince us not to launder our towels on a daily basis by guilting us into being like everyone else. we’re driven by our desire to be like others. and we’re influenced by what those around us do. what would happen if we applied this knowledge to the at-work beverage vending machine? what if instead of posting “have you had your 8 glasses of water today?” on the machine you posted “buy H²O. 60% of our customers do”?  perhaps we could influence drink choice.

take the stairs or take the elevator. add a salad to your lunch or grab some chips. buy the world a coke or yourself some water. every day we face small decisions that affect our health, decisions that could go one way or another if someone just showed us a sign.


[image: troy holden]

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

David Ballard October 26, 2010 at 9:36 am

Primary-level interventions (i.e., altering the physical and/or social environment to promote health) can be extremely effective, but are massively underutilized. Signs encouraging people to use the stairs, music and better lighting in stairwells, workspace redesign that encourages movement and social interaction, etc. can be cost-effective ways to promote a healthy, productive work environment. We need more investment in prevention and wellness, otherwise, we’ll continue our current pattern of spending most of our resources trying to fix problems after they occur.


fran October 26, 2010 at 10:09 am

“we need more investment in prevention and wellness…” well said.


Drew Hawkins October 26, 2010 at 9:44 am

I like this post. It’s easy to get so focused on using elaborate solutions to solve a problem that we often overlook the tiny behaviors that can make a big impact over time.


fran October 26, 2010 at 10:10 am

thanks, drew. i’m all for the small steps toward better health. a client and i are testing a “one change” challenge to see what happens with community and behavior when we invite people to make one change for a sustained period.



Greg Matthews October 26, 2010 at 10:25 am

Fran, I couldn’t agree with you more … it’s making those micro-changes that I think is going to a) make a difference in people’s health and b) make the bigger changes not-quite-so-big or scary. Well said!


fran October 26, 2010 at 10:43 am

thanks, greg. i talk with my clients’ employees pretty frequently. it never fails that what led them to eventually make major changes was something really small, like swapping soda for water.



Rick Austin October 26, 2010 at 12:03 pm

Thanks for the reminder. The knowledge translation and social marketing people I associate with have a bias towards the global solution. Sometimes the little step is enough.


fran October 26, 2010 at 12:10 pm

sometimes the little step is all we have control over! ultimately, i like to work things from both ends.

thanks for reading,


Janet McNichol October 26, 2010 at 12:16 pm

When we kicked off our Biggest Mover campaign, I intended to put signs around the office to highlight how many calories you could burn by taking the stairs, going for a walk around the block etc… I just never got around to it. Your post may just motiviate me to give it a try.

And, I wonder what would happen if I posted a sign on the vending machine with the number of minutes you would have to spend on a treadmill to negate the calories in a honey bun…


fran October 26, 2010 at 3:02 pm

IKEA has something clever at their corporate HQ. as you climb up the stairs, which are centrally located and open so that you can’t miss them, there are little “notes” engraved in them, like “you’re almost there.” makes me laugh every time.

if you do put those signs up, let us know what happens.



Sarah Monley October 26, 2010 at 12:41 pm

this is a clever way to summarize these nudges fran. thank you! another phrasing option: timing. spending time moving now vs. later, how much time it would really take or save to park close vs. far, etc… the most common excuse i hear is ‘i just don’t have time’, but really, how much will you accomplish in the minute and a half you saved walking from the back of the parking lot?

Janet, i would time the elevator too. if it’s anything like ours you could take three flights five times faster than waiting for the elevator to arrive.


fran October 26, 2010 at 3:05 pm

the time saved on hitting the stairs vs waiting for an elevator — too funny. and all too true.



Master David Goodmen February 9, 2011 at 11:36 pm

One should be aware of personal factors, too. I have bad cartilage in My knees.
Now, here’s the deal: They hurt when I go up the stairs, are fine going down. BUT, the stresses which damage the cartilage are much greater going down, than when going up the stairs!
I would take the elevator up, and go down the stairs. Eventually, I found going down the elevator, and up the stairs—even with groceries!—was (ahem!) the way to go!
One can improve one’s life much, by noticing these kinds of weirdnesses. Painkillers lessen the pain—they do NOT lessen the damage!


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