Why we care about Behavioural Psychology: 4 Tips for changing behaviour.

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Ultimately, the success of a wellness program comes down to one central issue: the creation of lasting changes in employee health-behaviours. Without this, then all of the other benefits that are associated with wellness programs are null and void. There will be no reduction in absenteeism, no increase in productivity, no money saved on health care costs, and no general improvement in the morale and culture of the organisation.

For a wellness program to do all the things it proposes to do for an organisation, it must first get employees actually eating better, exercising more along with reducing stress and anxiety.

Yet, getting people to actually eat healthier and become more physically active – and sustain these changes over the long-term, and at home – is easier said than done.

Many programs try to do this with information based campaigns that educate their employees about what they should do. However, research shows that such attempts by themselves are not enough to create the kind of meaningful changes that are necessary to see rewards from wellness initiatives.

Information alone is not enough.

In order to fully commit to sustainable changes it is necessary to take account of the underlying behavioural motivations of people, and these can be more nuanced and complex than it first appears.

Recent research into behavioural psychology and behavioural economics examine these nuances and subtleties of human behaviour. Both extremely popular disciplines currently, they are finally starting understand why people behave the way they do and why people do certain things even when they “know” better, e.g. eat too much sugar and salt, continue smoking tobacco, etc.

So, if information alone is not enough, then what is to be done to create sustainable behaviour change?

Research into the Behavioural Sciences offers four key characteristics of a wellness program that aim to create sustainable change, and accommodate the myriad of influences that effect our decision making.

1.       Make the daily health tasks easy and convenient to complete. Instead of focusing on general goals like “Eat better!” or “Do more exercise” a wellness program must focus on small, actionable steps. People are more likely to complete a task if it is broken down and manageable. For example, “Walk for at least 20 minutes today” or “Eat 3 pieces of fruit this morning”. Use goals like these, instead of the more overwhelming general orders.

2.       Structure the program so that it is as personal to each individual as possible. Research shows that people are far more likely to complete a program if they feel it is for them specifically. Otherwise, they can just get lost in the crowd. Try to make employees feel they are getting some individual attention to their own needs.

3.       Focus on making the program rewarding as opposed to punitive. Human beings respond much better to positive reinforcement and encouragement than to negative feedback. Also, the sooner such a reward is given, the better as it becomes directly associated with the behaviour completed.

4.       Allow for a strong social aspect to the program. Finally, social cohesion is a powerful motivator. By structuring the program so that employees can collaborate and compete with one another you foster a culture of health where everyone encourages and motivates one another to improve. Try setting up small groups of 3-6 and have the groups compete. This way you get the best of both competition and collaboration!

Any wellness program worth its salt will be on top of this new research coming out of the behavioural sciences and will incorporate the results in their programs.

Please see our white paper Mobile and online technology: Bridging the gap to lasting behaviour change for more in depth analysis!