How healthy is your work culture?

It all starts when we are children. Conformity.

Sameness has its place. It has allowed us to survive as a species. If we were all off doing our own thing, nothing would get done. Social rules keep us safe and help us fit in.

The problem with conformity however is that it often occurs at the expense of independent thinking, creativity and personal freedom.

With all of the technological advances we’ve made in the past 50 years, groupthink has led to some very unhealthy habits. Drive to work, sit at your desk, drive home, eat, sleep.

Despite medical advances and longer lives, we are progressively becoming less fit.

Obesity, the new normal: Over the years, western culture has become comfortable with obesity. And why not? Statistically, being overweight is the norm.

The 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey found 29 per cent of Canadians 18 and older were obese with an additional 41 per cent being overweight — that’s 70 per cent of the population with weight issues. (As you may have noticed, this is an old study — and rates aren’t exactly dropping.)

White-collar disease: Most people can draw a direct line between nagging health problems and work. Sure, jobs in developed countries, for the most part, are pretty cushy with diseases like black lung being relegated to the history books. The comfort and safety of modern work, however, comes with a host of new ailments — weight gain, alcohol abuse, stress, insomnia.

Well-intended workplace initiatives may be causing more harm than good. Muffins and doughnuts in the morning, candy and treat bowls dotting the office landscape, staff lunches, cocktail networking, long sedentary hours with little or no physical movement.

Have a seat: Speaking of sedentary, a quick calculation shows that most adults spend less than one per cent of their working life engaged in physical activity. According to a study conducted by Reebok and Censuswide, we spend 40 per cent of our lives staring at some form of technical device and 30 per cent sitting. With sleeping occupying another 30 per cent, there isn’t much left (only 0.69 per cent of our lives is spent doing what we were designed to do — exercise).

Break the mould: This dire picture doesn’t have to be so. We all have choices.

Breaking the mould may be tough but most organizations and groups are open to health-related initiatives. It’s good for morale, productivity and business. When healthier living becomes the norm, everyone wins.

In a study of 200 employees, Briston University found exercise increased concentration by 21 per cent, efficiency 22 per cent, working without unscheduled breaks 25 per cent and motivation 41 per cent.

The word ‘sheeple’ is used to describe people who are easily led, blindly following the behaviours of others. Sounds pretty negative but the phenomenon works both ways. You can trail the burger line or the salad line. You can sit through lunch staring at cats on YouTube or go for a walk.

For progress to take hold, change needs to be accessible and appealing to the masses. The corporate 10-km run is simply not tempting to the employee in accounting who has never exercised in his life and loves a good Bundt cake.

Don’t expect the triathlete in marketing to shift the culture. They are more concerned about split times — whatever that is.

More than likely it will be the nice receptionist (the one who brings candy and baked treats) that influences change. She’s already influencing weight gain — not in a good way. Why not redirect her powers of goodwill to something healthy and more productive?

If you choose to challenge the status quo at work, at home or within your social circle, remember this critical rule for success: When stuck or starting out, goals should be easy and attainable. Nothing kills a new initiative faster than failure.

The next time your group plans a team activity, consider a break with conformity. Better yet, break the mould and consider contributing to heart health instead of pant size.

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