Eating fruit is better for you than eating chocolate, right? Most people would agree that’s a sensible idea, but does agreeing with it mean most people eat more fruit than chocolate? No.

As someone who’s always battled with a extra few pounds of weight I’m well aware of the mounting scientific evidence which proves you’ll be healthier with more fruit and veg, less fat and sugar and more exercise. It’s common knowledge. However knowing and doing are very different beasts, as Nick notes in his article about goals and commitments (echoed in my biscuit addiction confessions).

Education and raising awareness are essential prerequisites for anyone who needs to see change, including those of you improving unsafe behaviour with culture change programmes. It defines the what, why and how aspects of getting moving in the right direction, yet alone they don’t always mean success.
Apple on top of a stack of biscuits
Two examples might help explain why.

My son’s primary school’s OFSTED inspection noted that too many children had packed lunches with unhealthy chocolate bars in (childhood obesity was a topical issue at the time for the NHS and government). So the headteacher immediately sent out an edict asking all parents to swap chocolate for fruit or yogurts, alongside running a healthy eating campaign in classes.

As the good parent I want everyone to think I am, I quickly sent all three of my children in the next day with an apple and no chocolate bars in their lunch boxes. Brownie points for me! But of course my boys resisted, brought the apples back uneaten and raided the fridge for chocolate I’d left unattended.

So I decided that education was required and sat them down to discuss the lunch box issue.

“Are apples healthy?”
“Yes” they answered in unison.
“Chocolate is unhealthy?” I continued.
“So you should eat more apples and less chocolate?”

Healthy eating sorted I thought, until I found three uneaten apples again and more missing chocolate bars.

So it’s not easy to get the change you want, even though you think you have control in a secure environment like a school, but what about in the workplace?

I once did a health survey for a large company with an office packed full of desk workers. My contact and I sat down at his desk and I asked if he had a stapler, as he opened his desk I saw five aging apple roll about.

“We had a push on healthy eating” he said apologetically.
“And you bring in more fruit?” I asked.
“No I don’t like fruit unless its peeled and chopped up and even then I’m not keen, but they bring it to meetings now so you have to take something or you look bad” was his reply.

It turns out that the occupational health nurse brings fruit to their weekly meeting and biscuits are banned. And fruit-hiding seemed to be the norm amongst other staff too as a result of a suggestion made by staff on diets who felt biscuits were too much of a temptation.

The nurse was positively jumping with glee thinking that she’d converted everyone to being fruit eaters and got rid of biscuits. Of course the truth was very different and I couldn’t get any of the senior team to own up to the fact that they all took fruit at the meetings and hid it for later. In fact biscuit eating behaviour had gone underground and created in a black market in coffee areas, secret cupboards and on long car journeys with secret biscuit eating colleagues!

So the moral of this this story is however much people may agree with you on something, like a rule or a policy, it doesn’t mean that they’ll take on that behaviour themselves. For that you need social pressure from your organisation’s culture or disciplinary action, otherwise we risk driving undesirable behaviour underground when we outright ban things.