Workplace (and Hospital) Superstitions?

Posted on May 13, 2014


A surprising statistic and graphic caught my attention while reading the latest Fast Company:  45% of workers engage in superstitious activity at work at least once a day. Superstitious activity ran the gamut from recognized acts like throwing salt over the shoulder (done more often at work than you think, apparently) to routines like wearing “lucky” clothing.  That statistic includes 3% of people who engage in an activity at least hourly, and 5% that partake in something superstitious “about every fifteen minutes or so” each day!

The role of superstition can be a socially acceptable act, and even a bonding experience, in the context of ‘randomness’ many associate with their lives.  We knock on wood to not jinx an outcome.  Sports fans break out rally caps late in a contest to help will their team to a comeback victory.  A bride may welcome rain on a wedding day…but should she feel cursed with unhappiness if it doesn’t happen?  And let’s not talk about black cats.

Those examples are all outside the purview of work.  Somehow superstition is less trivial in the work place because more is at stake.  Also, the work environment is understood as more controlled.  There is a belief we interact with very experienced folks (if not the occasional expert) everywhere from the bank to the dry cleaner, and superstitions simply shouldn’t be necessary to get a favorable outcome.  That’s why we pay people, in effect to not rely on luck, and guarantee results.

Two weeks ago, I was an unexpected Emergency Department patient at my local hospital.  (For the record, since hospitals are trying to keep people out of EDs I drove to the two nearest urgent cares first, but they were closed, natch).  Despite my injuries, I was fortunate to be able to walk in and out under my own power.  With my newest healthcare experience fresh in my mind, I tried to imagine the role of superstition in my visit…

…The admissions assistant stroking her rabbit’s foot as I walked through the door.  If I witnessed that, I suppose I would want to get in on that action, too, given my accident.  The triage nurse steps on a crack and insists on retracing his steps or perhaps giving up my diagnosis for lost.  When the ED doctor comes in to execute the sutures, she tells me not to worry because she had her lucky breakfast:  three hard-boiled eggs and a glass of freshly squeezed grapefruit juice.  Would this put me on edge or at ease?

Granted, many superstitions are carried out, but not visible to the general public.  Maybe my insurance agent announces she was isn’t washing her hair until she hits her quarterly commission.  Or my attorney said he was confident in court because of the exact and precise order in which he dressed himself that morning.  Both of these are superstitious actions could happen without my knowledge.

Superstition in the work place can undermine confidence, which would be ultimately bad for business.  Healthcare is a conservative field reliant on science and competence, with life and death in the balance at times.  Many times, it feels like an environment less tolerant of alternative anything—dress, humor, language, treatment ideas—let alone one where superstition would play an active role.  It is an environment that, on the surface, might shun superstition more than most.  But I just don’t know.  What would it look or feel like?  Would it be tolerated?

I remember a chair in the conference room at a former employer that was believed to have a strong linkage to office pregnancies.  Before meetings female guests would be warned, almost in a ‘don’t drink the water’ sort of way, as they considered their seat.

I can’t say superstition appears any more often where I work now than anywhere else.  But I wonder:  given the apparent frequency of superstition in the work place in general, has anyone witnessed superstition in action as a patient?  If so, I am interested to hear your story and how you felt.  I know there is a design problem here just waiting to be uncovered, just let me consult my Magic 8 ball…