Why your people want to get healthy… but can’t

As anyone who has ever attempted to stick to a fitness routine or cut out junk food knows, it is incredibly hard to put an end to bad habits. Good intentions aren’t enough, which is why the healthiest workplaces are using the psychology of behaviour change, explains Dr Wolfgang Seidl.

Perhaps the saddest outcome to emerge from 2019’s Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey – of 26,471 employees across 128 organisations – is the extent to which the genuine desire of people to get healthy isn’t translating into results.

Two-thirds of employees (65%) were not eating healthily, it found, compared to one in two employees (46%) in the previous year. Meanwhile the number of people getting fewer than seven hours of sleep per night had increased to 37%, compared to 30% last year.

About the author

Dr Wolfgang Seidl is a partner and workplace health consulting leader at Mercer

Mental health issues were also continuing to rise, with 58% of people saying they were negatively impacted by work-related stress, compared to 54% last year. One in ten employees continued to smoke and just under a third (30%) continued to exceed health guidelines on alcohol consumption.

About the only positive to emerge was that the proportion of people not engaging in healthy levels of physical activity had fallen, from 36% to 30%.

So why is it that when people very much want to have a healthy BMI, eat well and get enough sleep, they can’t make the positive changes necessary to make that happen?

Unfortunately, bad habits start for a reason and good intentions alone aren’t enough to deliver significant behaviour change. Instead, researchers from UCL have identified that there are three necessary conditions that all need to be in place for genuine behaviour change to take place: capability, motivation and opportunity.

In practice, this means if employees want to eat healthily but don’t have time to buy or prepare healthy meals, they won’t have the opportunity to eat well.

If they want to improve their mental health but inadvertently continue to do things that undermine this, they won’t be able to boost their emotional wellbeing until they develop the capability to do so. And if they want to use the gym but are hesitant to go because everyone there is already fit and toned, their motivation to work out will be diminished.

Applying behaviour change to workplace wellbeing

Employers that apply the science of behaviour change to their wellbeing programmes can dramatically increase people’s chances of converting good intentions into actions that help them lead healthier lives.

Take some of the organisations that topped Britain’s Healthiest Workplace. Many provide employees with access to gyms, which is nothing new or special in itself. But what is special is how the psychology of behaviour change is being utilised by also providing access to onsite physiotherapists who can “prescribe” free personal training.

Not only does this gym “prescription” boost the individual’s motivation to go, but free training, at the real point of need, also ensures they have the capability and opportunity to use it.

Of course, access to a physiotherapist or personal trainer will not be something all organisations can offer their staff. However, incorporating behaviour change into wellbeing initiatives can be as simple as devising wellbeing challenges that encourage people to get fit together, with one study showing that the risk of individuals quitting is reduced from 43% to just 6% if they work out with a partner.

On the mental health front, this can be as simple as destigmatising the issue and training managers to proactively recommend support, so that the barrier of employees not being motivated to use available services for fear of what their manager might say is removed.

By introducing an absence triage service to automatically refer those struggling to a free counselling service, you can also give them the opportunity to talk through feelings of low mood and devise an action plan that gives them the capability to create a support network and identify activities that will make them feel better.

The need for emotional drivers

The reason so many workplace wellbeing initiatives fail to deliver is that they aren’t strategically designed to change behaviour.

Far too many workplace wellbeing projects are disjointed tactical solutions created out of the need to be seen to be doing something rather than the strategic end result of proper analysis into the obstacles actually preventing people from living healthy lives.

For example, if someone is struggling to eat healthily, no amount of education on nutrition will enable them to improve their diet if they constantly have to travel for work and the only options for them to grab lunch are the unhealthy fare provided by petrol stations or the fast food available in motorway services. They simply won’t have the opportunity to eat healthily unless they prepare something from home, which also requires having the time and opportunity to do a healthy food shop and the skill required to prepare and package something to last the day.

What’s more, even when people are provided with the capability and opportunity to behave in healthy ways, many of us still revert to unhealthy habits. We leave healthy food to rot in the fridge and find ourselves ordering take-away or heating up a ready-meal, even though we genuinely want to eat well and have the facilities to do so.

The simple fact is that our motivation to behave healthily often isn’t strong enough on its own. To address this, employers need to help people identify deep and meaningful reasons to change their behaviour, such as the desire to be there for their children as they grow up or to maintain their health so that they can live their dream to travel the world in later life.

As the philosopher Baruch Spinoza recognised as early as the 17th century, we cannot change by intellectual insight alone. These insights must be accompanied by strong emotions for change to actually take place.

Once people have been given a medical diagnosis, they typically become much more motivated to improve their health to manage a disease, such type 2 diabetes, or reduce risk factors, like dangerously high cholesterol.

The challenge for employers is finding a way to motivate those who are on the path to disease, but yet to experience any negative side-effects, to change their behaviour so they can get off that trajectory.

At the same time as using actual organisational data to understand the real issues limiting the health of your workforce, it’s important to acknowledge the extent to which physical and emotional wellbeing are interlinked. From here you can create “people-shaped” policies that treat people as entire beings rather than attempting to fix parts of them in isolation.

This is important, because if people are worried about their finances, they may be struggling to sleep, causing them to crave unhealthy food for energy. No amount of focus on nutrition will be beneficial unless other wellbeing factors, such as how financially secure they feel and how well they’re sleeping, are addressed first.

Utilising the power of habit

Instead of expecting people to rely on willpower to make positive changes to their life, employers can harness the power of automatic thought to help employees make achieving their goals easier.

For example, it’s easier to work out at the same time every week than it is to try and exercise at a random time once a month. That’s because the more we do something consistently, the more it becomes an instinctive habit: something we automatically want to do and even feel compelled to do.

Whether it’s encouraging employees to go to bed at a healthy time, eat more healthily or save more money, the more employers can create opportunities for their people to consistently act in healthy ways, the more likely they will be able to create sustainable behaviour change.

Managers have a critical role to play in reinforcing healthy habits, such as setting examples by leaving work on time, taking proper breaks, stopping for lunch or utilising wellbeing facilities provided.

This is important because, as a 2018 study by Mercer and Business in the Community revealed, even though 85% of managers acknowledge that employee wellbeing is their responsibility, 64% say they have had to put the interests of their organisation above the wellbeing of their people.

This means that if occupational health or human resources is actively encouraging people to use wellbeing facilities at work but their manager frowns on this, the employee’s motivation to get healthy will be significantly lessened.

With managers programmed to focus on achieving what they’ve been formally tasked with, one way to remove barriers to boosting workplace wellbeing is to make looking after the wellbeing of others part of managers’ competency and training frameworks. By making it part of their formal objectives, managers would become more motivated to focus on improving the wellbeing of others and, by doing so, their own health in the process.

It’s also worth educating them about the productivity benefits associated with healthier workplaces.

The healthiest organisations from the Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey were able to save an average of 11.5 days of unproductive time per person per year compared to a typical workplace. For an organisation employing 1,000 people, that amounts to 11,500 working days a year, which is equivalent to employing another 50 people.

With business benefits like this to be realised, employers can no longer ignore the impact of health on productivity or the opportunities that behaviour change presents for helping people turn their good intentions to be healthier into actually being healthier.

Department of Kinesiology, Indiana University, “Strength in Numbers: The Importance of Fitness Buddies,” Experience Life (2012), available at https://experiencelife.com/article/strength-in-numbers-the-importance-of-fitness-buddies/

Seizing the momentum: mental health at work report 2018, Mercer and Business in the Community, https://wellbeing.bitc.org.uk/system/files/research/mental_health_at_work_-_survey_report_2018_-_23oct2018new.pdf

Why your people want to get healthy but can’t, 2019, Mercer, available at https://www.uk.mercer.com/our-thinking/health/behaviour-change.html

Britain’s Healthiest Workplace, https://www.vitality.co.uk/business/healthiest-workplace/findings/

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