Can You Force Someone to Be Healthier?

Can You Force Someone to Be Healthier?

In a classic study, researchers placed two rats in a cage. The first rat was able to do whatever he liked. He ate whenever he liked, he hopped on his rat treadmill to do a few laps whenever he was in the mood and he slept whenever he felt the urge to snooze. Essentially, he was living the rat high life and his brain bloomed with new brain cells. The second rat didn’t have it so good. He was yoked to the first rat and had to do everything the first rat wanted to do. Even though he was on the same “healthy” schedule as the first rat, he was not doing so well. In fact, he lost brain cells. Unlike his thriving counterpart, he lacked one critical factor: control.

A number of companies are hopping on the wellness bandwagon and using incentives to encourage their employees to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Others are going even farther and trying to enforce mandatory healthy lifestyles. Adopting a no-tobacco policy at work and at home, offering cash-incentives and gift cards, reimbursing workers for gym memberships and offering insurance premium discounts to those who meet health standards and surcharges to those who don’t, are among the many ways employers are nudging (strong-arming) their employees to make better choices.

As the rat study highlights and as psychologists have known all along, having a choice matters most of all. Activities that are supposed to lower stress can in fact cause stress if done in the wrong spirit. Recent research further underscores the importance of autonomy. A study from the University of Toronto shows that when employees have freedom over what to do during lunch breaks-either engage in relaxing activities or work through them-they experience enhanced positive affect and were more relaxed and less fatigued. Contrary to expectations, working through lunch can be restorative, but only if employees choose it themselves.

Bottom line: Nobody likes to be told what to do. There is no “one size fits all” especially when it comes to health and stress management. Discover what works for you and build more of it into your day.

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