by Mike Critelli
To Achieve a Culture of Health, We Cannot Market “Health,” “Wellness” or “Nutrition."
Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Gay wrote an article about doughnuts in workplace break areas used to lure workers back to the office. The sub-heading read, "Wellness, schmellness. Let’s promote the joy of glazed carbohydrates in the break room.”
Rather than resisting this human frailty, we need to adapt to it. Healthy nutritional habits need to be as enjoyable, affordable, convenient, and socially supported as unhealthy ones.
Healthy diets, wellness programs, and chronic disease management services are failing.
Several factors make altering eating and drinking behaviors challenging:
The cues that alert us to stop eating are inefficient. There is a built-in 10-minute delay between when our body needs no more food and when we experience being full. That delay lengthens to 20 minutes or more for obese people.
By eating high-calorie foods too fast, the delay factor has even worse effects. Eating too fast increases the harm we can do by ingesting food packing lots of calories in small masses.
We get an immediate and strong multi-sensory benefit from eating glazed doughnuts and other unhealthy foods. The benefit of refraining from eating them is delayed, not detectable, and unmeasurable.
Junk food delivers more immediate energy at a lower per-calorie price than healthy food. Candy bars give us immediate energy at a low per-calorie price.
We do mindless eating to counteract stress, fatigue, and boredom, especially when we work. Interminably long work meetings and driving stretches invite more eating and drinking. Even when many otherwise healthy executives and professionals eat on airplanes, they engage in mindless calorie consumption.
Eating unhealthy foods also is associated with fun and celebratory times, like birthday celebrations, wedding receptions, holiday dinners, or in business settings, deal closing events.
Alcohol consumption reduces inhibitions toward both more drinking and eating. Smart servers at high-end restaurants get us to drink wine before a meal, because they have far easier times getting us to order side dishes, desserts, and refills.
Yet employers and leaders of organizations who want to create a culture of health and well-being can succeed. We did it at Pitney Bowes.
What did we think and do differently? First, we treated unhealthy nutritional habits as systemically induced, not primarily the result of individuals lacking willpower. We believed that we could alter behaviors if we made healthy nutritional habits easier to sustain. Wendy Wood, a Professor at USC, supported this approach in her book Good Habits, Bad Habits. People with good nutritional habits either organize their life or have someone else organize it for them to make healthy nutritional habits easy.
Marketing “health,” “nutrition,” and “wellness” without a systems-level approach to changing the environment in which food is acquired and consumed is likely to fail.
There are specific opportunities in which a systemic approach works particularly well, although it can work at all times:
Prenatal programs for first-time parents are a great time to alter parental eating habits.
Someone who has experienced a painful musculo-skeletal injury because of being overweight may diet to reduce the chance of another injury.
From having been successful, often by trial-and-error, at Pitney Bowes, I learned that the most successful strategies are very different from what we originally thought would work best:
We reduced eating by addressing the physiological and psychological factors that induce mindless unhealthy eating. If a leadership team reduces stress, fatigue, and boredom, then eating driven by these factors declines as well.
By reducing unnecessary driving and sit-down meeting time, we saved money, improved productivity, and reduced mindless, boredom-induced eating.
We reduced overtime work. It improved productivity, reduced costs and eliminated the disruption it caused the sleep patterns of many employees and their families.
We reduced organizational stress, since many people gained weight because of stress.
Reducing the focus on alcohol consumption at business events reduced substance abuse and eliminated the tendency for people who had consumed alcohol to eat more:
At celebratory events, we shortened “cocktail hours” to “cocktail half hours.” The shortened socialization period did not materially reduce interaction, but it significantly reduced alcohol consumption.
Servers stopped automatic wine repouring. Those who wanted refills had to request them. This reduced expenses and made attendees conscious of how much they were drinking.
I personally stopped drinking alcohol at events to provide the “air cover” some attendees needed.
We hosted more events in our own facilities, because we had far better control over how much food and alcohol was served.
In our cafeterias, we showcased healthy foods and beverages the same way restaurant owners showcase their “specials.” We never eliminated choices; we just changed the choice architecture.
We reduced portion sizes and unhealthy ingredients a little bit at a time without telling anyone. If portion sizes and percentages of sodium are reduced gradually, few, if any, diners notice the difference.
While we did not market “health” and “wellness,” we marketed the energy and pleasure health and wellness enable. Successful health and wellness practitioners are great storytellers. They would not talk about losing weight to prolong life expectancy, but to be able to play more actively with friends and loved ones, particularly grandchildren.
A surprising number of employees altered eating and drinking behaviors because of missions or causes that make them feel better about themselves. We enlisted many employees to participate in walks to raise money for various community causes.
Organizations like HealthCode (for which I am a Donor and Advisor) and Charity Miles activate this latent desire for individuals to contribute to a societal cause bigger than themselves. I sponsored an annual walk to raise funds for muscular dystrophy research, because a prominent employee was struck down with it.
During our sales recognition events, we took a half day previously used by attendees to play golf or lounge with foods and drinks at the pool to engage in community service events. Over 100 of our employees and their guests joined us in a beach clean-up in Bermuda, the repainting of a community center in Boca Raton, and the participation in after-school reading programs in Scottsdale and Kauai.
We changed nutritional habits a little bit at a time. We used a light touch whenever possible. We created a “new normal.” It happens organically because senior leaders and Boards pursue it tenaciously.
On a recent Monday morning, as my daughter and I sat at our favorite coffee shop, she accessed a site that presented country-by-country and state-by-state smoking rates. What astounded us was how much progress virtually every country had made in reducing unhealthy tobacco consumption. The CDC reported that American adult smoking rates dropped from over 40% in 1968 to 13.7% in 2018.
We can make the same progress in reducing obesity and bad nutritional habits!