Creating New Social Norms

If you ever watched AMC’s award-winning drama Mad Men, you experienced the 1960’s advertising industry. The office attire, the prevalence of cigarette smoking and the roles of men and women were far different from today. Yet these were the social norms of the time, the accepted rules of behavior within a group.

In today’s workplace you won’t find cigarette smoking inside, but mid-morning cigarette breaks outside may be the norm. A company may hold a monthly birthday celebration for employees with cake and ice cream. Another organization’s employees may participate together in a fundraising walk to support a local charity. Social norms may diminish or contribute to health.

According to the National Social Norms Institute, the social norms approach to behavior change “steers people toward healthy behavior by letting them know it’s the normal thing to do.”1 It was originally used to help reduce risky drinking by college students. A social marketing campaign managed perceptions about the extent of drinking and promoted the healthier norms that truly existed among students, thereby changing the culture on campuses.1

Now the social norms approach is being used in health promotion at the worksite and in communities to foster healthy behavior. Positive affirming health messages, employee success stories, and supportive worksite environments all contribute to the approach. You can make it work in your organization by taking small steps to change the norms. The goal is to make the healthy choice the easy choice.

This is not something that happens overnight. You’ll need to know about the health needs and interests of your employees. You’ll need to understand how your worksite environment supports health or not. This information will help you identify worker health concerns and the unhealthy norms in your organization.

Let’s look at an example.

The norm: The nature of call center work keeps employees sitting at their desks with little time to move during the day. Employees with the same breaks typically take the elevator down to the company café, grab a coffee and then return to their desks. The employees repeat the same pattern in the afternoon. A 30-minute lunch break further supports inactivity.

Creating the new norm: The call center employees are interested in increasing their physical activity so the norms are ripe for change. A new policy allows and encourages employees to get up and move every hour. Posters show employees movements that are easy to perform in work attire. Employees map out three, five and 10-minute walking paths inside the building. The company provides stand/sit workstations, so employees can choose to stand or sit while taking customer calls. The company newsletter features the call center employees in action. A new norm begins to take hold and employees seek other opportunities to move during morning, afternoon and lunch breaks.

This example shows how a norm can begin to change with employee interest, company policy, fitness education and recognition. Think about your own organization. What opportunities do you see for change? How might you use this approach?



1. National Social Norms Institute at the University of Virginia.