Experiments in Wellbeing – Step by Step

How would you feel if your employer offered you a FitBit? Not as a means of gathering data about you, or seeking to monitor you, but simply as an invitation for you to explore the concept of physical wellbeing in more detail.

This was one of a number of lines of enquiry John Sumser and I pursued in a recent conversation on wellbeing – which has led me to write this post.

Being Active Is Important

I’ve always considered myself to be reasonably active, getting out and about matters to me. In the past I’ve cycled a lot and run a bit. Currently I walk a fair bit, and cycle occasionally. I enjoy my walks – whether they are to and from the station, or further afield, for me they are useful not only for the physical exercise, but also for the time to think. Often, rather than trying to carve out time in a busy schedule specifically for walking, I try to integrate my walks into my day, particularly during the week. Over the past couple of months, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to my walking, and here is some of what I’ve learned so far.

Getting Into A Habit

Last November I joined up with a small group of people based in the USA to take part in Runner’s Week Run Streak, or #RWRunStreak for short. Thankfully for the eyeballs and sanity of my neighbours, this was a challenge to take part in regular exercise rather than a commitment to run naked down the street every day. *Shudder* The idea was to commit to running at least a mile a day, every day between Thanksgiving (November 27th) and New Year’s Day. I opted to walk rather than run, and despite having manflu for a few days in December, I got the job done, covering 111.1 miles over the duration of the challenge. It took discipline to get out each and every day, I enjoyed doing this, and the motivation of knowing other friends were taking part helped a lot too. You can read more about how I experienced the challenge here.

Data Data Everywhere

Part way through #RWRunStreak I began to find the process of logging all my distances a bit tedious. I was using an app called Strava, which although it records data very well, you need to remember to switch it on before you start your exercise, then off at the end, and sync it. I wanted something which made gathering the data easier, so I asked Santa for a FitBit. He duly obliged, so on December 27th I charged up my new FitBit and put it on. I’ve now accumulated a months worth of data so I thought I’d share a few things with you.

FitBit Data 27 Dec 26 Jan

I use a FitBit Flex – this particular model does not measure going up and down steps, which is why ‘floors’ shows as 0 on the chart. I’m also not currently entering any data about what I eat, or how much water I drink (though I am definitely drinking more water) so the calories count is a best guess by the software, and I am currently ignoring that too. As you can see, I’ve notched up over 150 miles in a calendar month. That distance really surprised me, I thought the 111.1 miles I covered during #RWRunStreak was a lot, and I had anticipated taking a break, not going further.

FitBit Sleep Data

You can log data about your sleep with this FitBit – tapping in when you go to bed, and tapping out when you wake up. It is supposed to log sleep, and any periods of being awake and restless during the night too. So far, I’d give it about 4/10 for accuracy in the awake/restless department. You can log your weight – either manually or via wifi scales, you can input nutritional information and you can keep note of specific exercise activities too. I’m currently just scratching the surface.

What’s Good?

The FitBit Flex is unobtrusive – I don’t know I am wearing it. It’s easy to use – you just put it on your wrist and apart from remembering to charge it every few days – that’s it. If you are interested in logging your sleep and you forget to tap in and out, you can manually input the timings later. I feel a little fitter, and more motivated – and I am getting better at sequencing and prioritising stuff. I’ve noticed that as I walk more regularly – I pay attention to the little things. Nerd alert – how I do up my shoes matters much more now than before. Tight enough to be comfortable over a reasonable distance, not too tight to pinch. I used to walk at a considerable pace, over 4 miles per hour. I’ve slowed down a little – focussing more on feeling comfortable rather than hot footing it from A to B, and I have thought much more about my posture, and eased into a more relaxed way of walking. As well as taking ideas for a walk – something I’ve done for years, sometimes I am just walking, with as clear a head as possible. A more meditative approach perhaps?

What’s Not So Good

When it comes out of the box, the FitBit is set to give you a congratulatory buzz on completing a daily target of 10,000 steps. I’ve noticed myself paying too much attention to that – on a few occasions when I’ve found myself close to 10,000 at the end of the day, I’ve gone for a short walk round and round the kitchen to make the target. And there are badges handed out too, both for specific and accumulated distances. Nice, shiny badges. It’s interesting how I’m allowing myself to be gamed – who is in charge here? I have also joined a FitBit group, something I chose to do as part of looking at how to maintain motivation, a bit like how our small group interacted in the #RWRunStreak. I knew everyone in the #RWRunStreak group well, and we encouraged one another, whereas I know hardly anyone in this larger group, and I seem to be currently using it competitively rather than cooperatively. What is my motivation?

Uses At Work

If you Google ‘wellbeing at work’ you’ll find tons of stuff that links the two subjects. For example, This ACAS report published in 2012 states that:

The key factors that can determine whether workers will have a positive or negative relationship with work are:

the relationships between line managers and employees
whether employees are involved in organisational issues and decisions
job design
availability and acceptability of flexible working
awareness of occupational health issues

The report recognises that wellbeing is something employees and employers share responsibility for, and though a lot of the published research talks about the productivity benefits for the business of having healthy employees – I haven’t yet found anything that speaks of the human benefits. I think it is worth reusing a piece from a recent New York Times article, which despite referencing a study showing benefits of regular lunch break walks, also noted:

…tellingly, many said that they anticipated being unable to continue walking after the experiment ended and a few (not counted in the final tally of volunteers) had had to drop out midway through the program. The primary impediment to their walking, Dr. Thogersen-Ntoumani said, had been “that they were expected by management to work through lunch,”

This says to me that wellbeing is OK as long as we can derive productivity benefits for the business, but we’re much less keen on reciprocally doing the right thing for people.

I would be interested to see what we could learn from employers optionally offering their employees devices such as a FitBit, in order to encourage more physical activity. Care would need to be taken to ensure this wasn’t seen as ‘nanny state/big brother’ behaviour, so I don’t think it would help if the employer then tried to gather any direct data from people using these devices. But, if the employer simply made the offer and left people to get on with it, then based on my experience so far, some genuinely mutual benefit could arise. As always – it’s less about the tech, so much more about the behaviour.

In summary – two months into taking more regular exercise, I feel fitter, more motivated, and even a little more productive in my work. I also feel conflicted about motivation, given my responses to the gamification elements of the tech.

Next time I write on this subject, I will focus more specifically on my current experiences with mental wellbeing.

Bad behaviour rocks!

Some of you know I run a little group over in LinkedIn land called ‘Is Bad Behaviour Killing Big Business‘. Julia Briggs joined the group just recently and in response to the group title she offered this:

‘Ah, but I love bad behaviour……because for independent consultants and ‘baby’ entrepreneurs like me it gives us huge opportunities.

Every time a recruitment agency hacks off a client or a candidate that’s another reason why my business venture will make it. And as an interim, every time a client does something jawdroppingly ‘stupid’ they needed someone like me to come in and sort it out.

So, I do hope we get to celebrate bad behaviour in this group and turn it into opportunities. For those of you in the IIM group you may have seen what was a spectacularly bad tempered and very dumb thread where members criticised a potential client’s opinion of interims……no thought of engaging with the potential client, or taking on board what he said (feedback is a gift)……and every time this happens I just thank my lucky stars.’

To which Jonathan Wilson replied:

‘So… bad behaviour may be killing big business by inspiring new business. Creative self-destruction where capitalism meets Marxism in Schumpeter’s neo-liberalism. Heady stuff full of opportunities for caring opportunists. Great stuff!’

And Ian Sutherland added:

‘There seems to be something here about conscious and unconscious behaviour. To me Doug’s point is often about bad behaviour being unconscious and then breeding further bad behaviour and indeed vindicating it.

Julia’s optimisim (and I do believe that every challenge presents an opportunity if you have the right mindset) is based on recognising bad behaviour and trying to do something about. Business these days especially big business (and previously successful business) has a huge organisational inertia. My guess is that in 90% of the cases that is just fixing the immediate mess (I’m a manager get me out of here!), but every now and then there will be a real desire to make things different and better.

Being conscious that it is bad behaviour is the start.’

And back to Jonathan again:

‘Very much so, Ian, and it raises interesting questions about the different perspectives of the self-employed (like most of us) and the employed. People express their real values very much more by their actions than by their words and the fit between them says most of all.

I don’t think anyone goes to work to do bad things, or to do things badly, but they will do things and allow things that they do not really believe are good things to do because they want:

to stay employed (for the money or the security or the company)

to avoid conflict or embarrassment with their boss or in front of their peers.

(I know from other research that intelligent, skilled people would rather risk death than embarrassment and have died as a result, taking hundreds more with them)

As businesses get bigger and older (a key transition is with the departure or death of the founders so the firm becomes entirely run by agents) it becomes less clear what they stand for and they lose the guiding light, “What would [the founder] do?”.

When firms become publicly owned the managers simplify (simplisticise?) the aim of the company as being to make money, because money is the most obvious (though often erroneous) abstraction of the concept of value. And because we delegate the management of the owning of shares to other agents (fund managers, insurance companies, pension funds) and they want to show they are doing a good job the focus on money and apparent profit is intensified and made even more short term. One year is a ridiculously short time to assess a company or a strategy, but public companies are made to report and be judged on their financial results every three months. This affects their behaviour quite negatively. When in order to incentivise them, senior managers are given bonuses (just for doing the job) based on that financial performance the perversion becomes destructive.

As you say , Ian, big companies do have immense inertia from their physical presence, established customer base, license to operate and their brand. And so some of their employees, up to and including the CEO, sometimes tend to tend undervalue that and take it for granted, even appearing to believe that they have an eternal right to do what they do. This then leads to the arrogance and complacency that eventually brings them down, but it is usually a long, slow corrosive process leading to an apparently sudden, shocking collapse.’

I love where this conversation is going, so much so I wanted to share it beyond the group. Thanks to Julia, Jonathan and Ian for giving me (and I hope now you) lots of food for thought. I’d love to know what you think about some of the points raised here.