Changing Behaviors: 4 Tips to Improve Your Program

Changing health behaviors is perhaps the most critical, and yet underachieved, aspect of corporate wellness. Raising awareness about health is nice, but without influencing sustained changes in employee health behavior, what value does it give your people or your business?

Although many companies talk about behavior change, their wellness program structure fails to align with a clear behavioral process. From our 20 years of experience working in health behavior change, we most commonly see fundamental breakdowns in the program aspects of communication, or in goal setting and reward structures.

Let’s take a quick step back. Most of our readers are likely familiar with at least a couple of established theoretical models of change. Regardless of your favored model, a commonality across theories is that change is a process. Change is rarely a discrete event and requires people to progress through steps of initial changes in mindset, learning and skill acquisition, and then implementation. Therefore this process is completely dependent on helping individuals establish motivation to change, and then on effective education and support through the learning and implementation phases.

Unfortunately, many health promotion programs do one or the other well, but fail to provide all the components necessary to induce effective long term change. That is, they focus on education campaigns or short term high engagement points, but fail to effectively spark individual motivation or provide ongoing skill development. Or, the other extreme; they petition the achievement of predetermined goals through the use of incentives, without effectively supporting the critical aspect of education or accounting for the variances in individual needs. People can’t control their cholesterol, blood pressure, or weight; they control their lifestyles and behaviors which contribute to these health outcomes. That’s a subtle, but very critical distinction. Too much focus on the outcomes without helping people understand the process will lead to employees who may achieve goals in the short term, but will find it almost impossible to sustain those changes in the long term.

Here are some tips to help you avoid some of the pitfalls noted above, and help you create a more effective, and sustainable behavior change program.

1.       Allow employees to identify their own goals. You can absolutely provide them with guidance, but ultimately you need employees to have an interest in changing themselves.

2.       Make goals positive instead of negative. This sounds like goal setting 101 – and yet we continue to see it over and over again in health programs. Many people inherently make health changes about avoidance; be it avoiding certain foods or avoiding undesirable outcomes. Avoiding a negative outcome is not as powerful a motivator as achieving a positive outcome – so always help employees find positive reasons to improve their health.

3.       Stretch your budget further than 12 weeks. Sure, a summer steps competition might be fun, but it's not a pathway to significant change. Neither is a biometric screening followed by one or two mandatory coaching calls for high risk groups. Too many health programs are based on al-a-carte activities or time-limited disease management programs which fail to consistently and progressively educate or support employees longer term. Remember, effective behavior change is a process, not an event, and educational theory has proven that people learn more effectively through small, frequently spaced progressive reinforcement compared with large, isolated information dumps. The most effective programs are ongoing and engage employees regularly.

4.       Be cautious with incentives. Incentives are best used to make programs fun or to reward progress in the process of change. When they are solely linked to outcomes they force people to jump directly to the action stage of change without going through the preparatory process. When completed in this fashion, most change is highly unsustainable. If you set your employees up to fail you not only miss out on the benefits of effective health promotion, you may even cause long term damage to your culture or employee engagement. 

Workplace health promotion should be positive. It’s about empowering your employees to be the best they can be. When done well, it boosts employee engagement and performance, while helping control a plethora of organizational costs such as absence, disability, and healthcare. Imagine the benefit to your organization if you could successfully support positive change from more than half of your workforce. We encourage you to consider these simple tips when reviewing your current or planned workplace health initiatives. Or, if you want help, contact us for professional wellness consulting, program design, or complete health promotion programming.

Published on by Andrew Stephenson.