Does your working environment push you towards health or illness?

At work, Erkki takes a Finnish meat pie out of his bag and heats it in the microwave. It seems that his wife has also packed a tomato this time. Erkki could have lunch at the staff canteen but it takes fifteen minutes to walk there and back and the lunch break simply isn’t long enough. His colleagues do not usually eat there either. That’s more for the supervisors anyway.

Elsewhere, Pasi’s colleague takes a break from VDU work that causes tension in the neck and asks Pasi to join him for lunch. In the staff canteen, there is a rich salad bar, rye bread fresh from the oven and three versatile lunch options. Pasi helps himself to a plateful from the buffet.

Erkki and Pasi – future diabetic patients?

Both Erkki and Pasi have taken the test to map their risk for type 2 diabetes (https://www.stopdia.fi, only in Finnish):  both have an elevated risk for diabetes. Both want to prevent the illness and know that healthy eating habits and more exercise would help.

Erkki and Pasi are imaginary characters inspired by workplace visits in the Stop Diabetes research project (@StopDiaFinland). The StopDia project cooperates with 16 workplaces where thousands of employees work in very different working environments.

The role of environment in dictating our actions

In the StopDia project, we have studied how changes in the working environment can affect the eating and exercising habits during the work day. This is based on the fact that our physical and social environment have a strong influence on our actions. Choice architecture, i.e. the ways in which choices are presented, influences our behaviour and the choices we make. It is natural to choose something that is easy and popular: Pasi has lunch at the staff canteen but Erkki does not.

A nudge in the right direction

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, researchers in behavioural economics, presented ”nudging”, an approach that aims for a change in behaviour, in their book published in 2008: Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.

A nudge refers to any change in the way choices are presented that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without restricting choice or significantly increasing costs.

The main principle of nudging is that people’s decisions are rational only to a degree and that environmental clues have a strong influence on our actions.

The workplace as a nudger

At working age, we spend a large part of our lives at the workplace, meaning that a lot of choices that affect our health are made at the workplace: we eat well or don’t eat, we take breaks and stretch or work for long periods at a time, shoulders up by the ears.

For the employer, good employees who are well are more precious than gold. Previously, employers concentrated on reducing the number of sick leaves and early retirement but that is not enough for vital companies. They also aim for having energetic employees who feel well and are satisfied with their work.

Employers can invest in their employees by providing a working environment that supports healthy choices, such as work stations that support ergonomic working, a room for relaxing, high-quality staff canteen and a daily fruit basket, for example.

The operational culture of the work community and, in particular, the example set by the management guide our ways of working. A well-designed environment can encourage us to work on good posture, to take relaxing breaks and to eat well, and the operational culture helps us to separate work and free time.

What will happen to Erkki and Pasi?

They may or may not get ill. Both are willing to make an effort to stay healthy. Erkki seems to need some more willpower, however, whereas Pasi is being nudged in the right direction almost without noticing.

What will happen to you?

In what direction does your working environment guide you? Did you eat well during the day and do you feel limber and energetic after work? What kind of working environment and culture would promote that?

This blog text was originally published in the blog of VTT Technological Research Centre of Finland on 15 October 2018.

 

Saara Pentikäinen

Saara Pentikäinen
researcher, VTT
firstname.lastname@vtt.fi

 

 

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