Monday, October 09, 2006

In praise of tradition

Thanksgiving in Canada has always been one of my favourite holidays. The weather is nearly always wonderful. The bright fall skies, the fabulous colours in Ontario, the crisp, near-winter air in Saskatchewan, and now the sunny warmth of Vancouver Island. I love them all.

What they all have in common is a lot of tradition, the lack of pressure to buy the right gifts and everyones' desire to sit down, enjoy a great dinner and warm conversation. In our case, there's usually some mix of friends and family around and plenty of time to relive past dinners and toast the departed.

It's usually at holidays that we pay attention to traditions. But maybe we'd all be a bit better off if we started paying more attention in between holidays.

This weekend in the Globe and Mail, there was an article about how families that eat dinner together regularly are more likely to have well-adjusted teenagers with fewer eating and behavioural issues. It seems that sitting down and talking to each other every day is a good thing. Who knew?

For the past decade, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University looked for a common denominator for kids who didn't use alcohol, drugs, or tobacco; teens who did not become pregnant.

The researchers were surprised to find that, more significant than good grades at school or church attendance, the one thing that differentiated kids who "engaged in risky behaviours" from those who did not was eating family dinners.

(And kids who ate with their families five nights a week did better than kids who shared dinner on only two nights.)

Seriously though, a report like that points to a larger issue in our modern society - the cult of "doing more and more all the time." All too often, we seem willing to sacrifice things that used to be taken for granted only a generation ago.

For example, few of us expect to walk to work anymore. Nor do we expect to be able to come home for lunch. Children no longer come home at lunch either. Heck, they only have 30 or 40 minutes to eat and get back to the classroom.

And when they're done for the day, they're not on their own. A lot of kids have an adult waiting for them at the end of the school day. I don't think my Mom or Dad ever picked me up from school in all the 12 years I was there, except for a doctor's appointment or something like that.

And with people working longer hours and still trying to pack in all kinds of activities, a lot of families have given up on the idea of sitting down to a meal at the end of the day.

But maybe we should reconsider. If we are really getting our priorities right, we'd make time for some of those things. Again, to quote from the Globe article:

Researchers point to specific health benefits too. A recent study at Syracuse University found that, among kids who have asthma, those who eat dinner with their families miss fewer days of school and have fewer emergency-room visits. Other benefits include: better nutrition, more thoughtful manners, lower incidence of eating disorders of all sorts -- from anorexia to obesity.

So traditions are good for our kids. But we can push this idea a little further.

I also believe it's time that businesses starting paying attention to some of these trends. Too many companies expect employees to work long hours, be available during off-work hours (via email, cellphones or Blackberries) and skip lunch on a regular basis to cram in a few more minutes of work.

But just as families might discover that cramming more and more activities into their day at the expense of long-held traditions (like a reasonable lunch hour and a sit-down dinner) could end up hurting their child's development, so too companies should consider the long-term impacts of a modern workload on their employees' health.

In Nova Scotia, the government has mandated that all provincial employees must take a 60 minute lunch break, preferably outside of the office. It's been ordered and managers are expected to enforce the edict. And it's already having a positive impact on people's performance in the afternoon, when they report feeling energized and ready to work, instead of crashing.

It's a simple thing, but a lot of little things added together turn into big things.

We're coming out of a long cycle of business metrics that have rewarded short-term financial results at the expense of long-term stability, especially among employees. But as with all trends, the pendumlum eventually swings back.

I predict that soon progressive companies will realize that by ensuring their employees do "less" each day, they'll actually gain in productivity, as well as bulding a more effective work force and reducing their churn rate.

The days of "re-engineering" jobs out of existence while burdening remaining employees with even more work are going to disappear. Also disappearing will be the idea that it's cool to be over-worked, stressed out and a stranger to your kids. And I say good riddance.

Then we'll have something to really celebrate at Thanksgiving.

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1 comment:

Jaime said...

How coincidental. In one of my classes today, we were talking about companies that have discovered how treating your employees well actually improves their performance (who'd have guessed?) All work and no play (or eat is clearly good for no one!