January 27, 2008

Healthy Environment

I believe strongly that health is enhanced by healthy behaviors, such as good nutrition, exercise, and healthy lifestyles. To some degree, we can mandate healthy behaviors by law and regulation, or by centralized controls.

However, just as I noted in a blog several months ago in which I described some of the findings in the book Mindless Eating, authored by Brian Wansink, the best behavior change drivers are those of which the individual is not conscious. Steve Victor’s Fit For Life blog provides a brief summary of the book’s key takeaways.

For example, in our World Headquarters at Pitney Bowes, we have created a healthy environment by the food we serve and the way we price it. We have an on-site clinic and on-site fitness center, and we have many outreach programs for preventive screenings and immunizations.

However, supplementing these more formalized approaches are the subtle things we have done to make healthy behaviors more prevalent. We have built very inviting and conveniently placed stairways as we have renovated the building. We have created an open office environment in most of the facility, and will renovate the remainder of the building consistent with what we have already done. We have created a layout that gives every employee in the renovated spaces direct access to natural sunlight. We have created a brighter color scheme and have used environmentally-friendly building materials and furnishings. We have also enabled people to get the functionality of a fixed office throughout the building by creating a robust wireless communications system. As pointed out in theEmployee Wellness Blog, these small enhancements make a big difference, and can be particularly effective when combined with a structured wellness program.

Much of what we have done to encourage employees to walk more, to communicate more with their fellow employees, and to feel better about their surroundings was not obvious in terms of its impact. We did not mandate that employees increase their walking; the environment made walking more attractive. We did not mandate more communications and mutually supportive behavior; the environment made socialization a more attractive and natural option. We did not mandate a brighter outlook; the environment made access to the sun achieve that for us.

Take that principle and apply it outside our four walls. A lot has been written about how to create an inviting neighborhood environment for walking, exercise, and safety. William H. Whyte wrote a great book over 20 years ago called City, which consisted of his observations about how New York City residents reacted to different physical layouts. He found that they walked in certain areas more than others because the environment was more conducive to walking. This recent post in The Ground Floor blog reviews some intriguing facts for how and why the average life expectancy of New Yorkers has increased due to the walkable environment, among other factors.

Furthermore, Jane Jacobs, in her ground-breaking work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, talked about the benefits of mixed-use zoning, shorter blocks, narrower streets, and easy access to parks and bike paths, all of which were conducive to healthier living.

Similarly, in our headquarters neighborhood in the South End of Stamford, Connecticut, our Neighborhood Revitalization Zone Board, working collaboratively with the City of Stamford, under the brilliant leadership of Mayor Dan Malloy, has eliminated burnt-out automobiles, most of the abandoned, boarded-up housing, and the rubble-strewn parks and yards that make a neighborhood appear menacing and uninviting for walking. Years ago, I did not feel comfortable walking from our World Headquarters to the Stamford Train Station because I passed dangerous and deserted areas. Today, it is a relatively inviting walk, and will get better as the Antares Group completes its ambitious plan for mixed-use development.

Ultimately, people respond to both the formal and the implicit cues in their external environment to engage in good or bad behaviors. We need to create the healthiest possible environment for the right behaviors. Lower health care costs and a greater sense of well-being are the rewards we reap for those kinds of decisions.