According to The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell’s international bestseller about ‘social epidemics’, the way to tackle a growing social problem is not to do what governments and health campaigners instinctively do, which is to emphasise the huge scale of the issue – how many people are drinking, smoking, becoming addicted to X-Box, failing to go to bed early, eat vegetables, and so on – and the crisis that is sure to ensue unless they change.
All that does is to reinforce the fabulous gregariousness of ‘bad’ habits.
The message sent is that everyone is doing it, they can’t all be mad, so why believe what tyrannical busy-bodies and intolerant governments have to say?
A wiser path, Gladwell suggests, would be to stress how eccentric such behaviour is, to make adherents stand out from the crowd, isolated in miserable delinquency.
People seek social endorsement for their choices. ‘Memes’, the social epidemiologist’s jargon for ideas, messages and behaviour, spread in much the same way as viruses do, so the best strategy is to try and ‘interrupt’ the contagion by attempting to quarantine its leaders in a lonely ghetto of anti-social self-harm.
The message should be ‘a handful of idiots are trying to kill themselves’, rather than ‘so many people are making lifestyle choices we don’t like’.
The strategy should aim to deny the social dividend of ‘unhealthy’ lifestyles.
Memetics has all the hallmarks of a bit of faux-clever reverse psychology. But what is interesting is that this way of thinking appears to be becoming almost the received wisdom in the new politics of lifestyle reform – and employers are in the front line.
Take company smoking policies. More than half the employers in the UK now have a ‘smoke-free policy’, forcing smokers outside to take cigarette breaks. The effect of observing windswept, faintly poignant, little huddles of workers puffing away in office doorways sends out a powerful message that smokers are outcasts – social rejects from the corporate community. There is little to suggest the glamour of the mysterious outsider.
In ancient Greece, they used to write the names of unwanted people on a stone tablet known as an ostrakon – hence our verb, to ostracise. And this is exactly what smoking bans are: an exercise in social ostracism. It is employers using their power to privilege the rights of the employees who are making ‘healthy’ lifestyle choices above those making less healthy ones.
The latter are temporarily cast out each time they palliate their craving.
They are then welcomed back in to the disapproving, though forgiving, embrace of their employer, bearing only the faint odour of miscreance about them.
Free-smoking workplaces, as opposed to smoke-free ones, have until 31 December 2007 (after which the government’s partial workplace smoking ban comes into force) to amend the error of their ways.
In matters of employment rights, it is normal for employers to take a libertarian line, arguing that it is up to workers and managers to find arrangements that suit them.
But the proposal to deputise employers in the battle to deter smoking has provoked little muttering about nanny’s expanding naughty circle, or invocations of CS Lewis’s famous dictum that “a tyranny exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive”.
The idea of making a law out of something employers were already widely doing voluntarily has instead been received with something approaching gusto outside the hospitality sector, which is currently caught up in an unwholesome alliance with the tobacco lobby. In effect, many employers were already helping to push a lifestyle reform whose ultimate purpose lies well beyond the confines of the workplace.
To date, attempts to deter smoking on a national scale have been limited to financial punishment, via high taxation, and persistent health warnings about the consequences. Bans open up a new front: the power of social censure and social approval, as mediated by employers.
In Ireland, which in March 2004 introduced a much more comprehensive workplace smoking ban than is planned in the UK, the Office of Tobacco Control – the republic’s anti-smoking agency – argues that the effect has been to deny opportunities to smokers.
Because people can only smoke outside, smoking – a sociably anti-social kind of vice – becomes less appealing. Thus smokers smoke less, or finally take the decision to give up, and sales of cigarettes have gone down.
Being in a persecuted minority can be fun, of course, but not so much fun that smokers endure the rain to savour it. If they could smoke at work, or in a specially designated room, this sense of social disavowal would not be nearly as potent. But because people want peer approval so strongly, the effect of employers endorsing one lifestyle and repudiating another is a very powerful one.
In former times, such strategies might have been described as authoritarian. Today, employers’ involvement in ‘tipping’ lifestyle trends has aroused little suspicion, and considerable support, and health promotion is seen as an unremarkable addition to the range of social services employers already provide.
Governments can tax and cajole their citizens into better behaviour. But it is only with the help of employers that they can successfully wield the memetic power of social ostracism.
What do you think?
Tell us your views: How can employers resist the urge to act as a government stooge in matters of employee health? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org