By Tom Rath

In America we face a health crisis of epic proportions. A majority of people now die from largely preventable conditions.  Businesses are going broke on account of rising healthcare costs. People we love are sick, tired, and dying far too early.

To greatly oversimplify the problem, “we the people” of the United States have created a lifestyle that is unsustainable.

We engineered activity out of our lives in the name of convenience. We created foods that put fried, fatty, sweet, and salty ahead of fresh, natural, and healthy. We quickly sacrifice sleep to work longer hours in pursuit of the American Dream.  Even when we do these things with good intentions, they have life threatening consequences.

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Obesity rates by country (via WHO)

Our sedentary, sleepless, fast food lifestyle is now infecting the rest of the developed world. The percent of people who are overweight or obese is now even higher in Mexico and wealthy Middle Eastern countries than it is here in the U.S. If we fail to do something about this soon, the lifestyle we export will kill far more people abroad than wars and drones over the next quarter century.

As a citizen of the United States, my take is: we have a responsibility to help fix the global health crisis we started.

After studying the sources of this crisis for several years, I am convinced the best way to curb this epidemic is one social network at a time. If you look back at how we reversed the trend of smoking, we essentially pushed cigarettes to the edges of our largest social networks. We kicked smoking out of our schools, offices, restaurants, stores, airplanes, homes, and buildings.

When we debate what led to this change in smoking, or any other large-scale societal shift, it is easy to underestimate the role of the workplace. Yet I have found that organizations are the largest and most influential networks for creating dramatic change. If we want to tackle the crisis of poor health, we need mobilize these social networks. The best way to combat poor health is one workplace, school, and congregation at a time.

When your boss and colleagues care enough to invest in your health, it is good for you and the business. If a school makes an effort to provide kids the right foods and help them to be more active, this benefits the student and the family’s health. If you embark on a program to improve your health with a church or community group, you are more likely to stick with it over time.

Because traditional organizational-driven health programs bypass these social networks, most employees do not realize that having healthier colleagues is in everyone’s best interests. If my colleagues stop eating donuts and are more active, it saves me money on next year’s insurance premium and I get to work with people who have more energy and creativity each day. Yet most organizations fail to make health a cultural priority. Instead, they treat healthcare like any other expense.

Employers and employees alike need to start thinking about health as an investment, not an expense. Companies can give employees time, resources, and leaders who genuinely care about each person’s health and well-being. As employees, we need to start thinking about how we can build healthier work teams. This starts by taking ownership for our own health, and then continues by helping a close friend or colleague.

At some point, we need to realize that we are all in this battle together. I need to be healthier to enjoy my days, live longer, serve my community, and be a more active spouse and parent. I need my loved ones to be healthier so they are happy, energetic, and around for years to come. I also need my colleagues to make better lifestyle choices so they can contribute more to our shared work, minimize the soaring cost of healthcare for all of us, and help to create a culture where good health is a priority.

This global epidemic of poor health will not be fixed by policies, governments, or insurance companies alone. We will fix this problem by looking at our own choices, helping the people we love, and investing in the health of our immediate social networks. Within these networks – families, businesses, faith groups, and communities – lies the solution to the greatest challenge of our generation.


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