Behaviour change science: why it’s so important post pandemic

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Behavioural science is increasingly playing a central role at forward thinking employers which are committed to embedding wellbeing as a strategic priority.

Natwest, for example, set up a behavioural science department in February 2020, led by Dr Anna Koczwara, head of behavioural science, ahead of the pandemic. When the pandemic hit, the department’s importance and workload increased dramatically (you can read more about what Natwest are doing on this front here).

So why is the science of how you change employee behaviour becoming so important?

Basically, because employers are realising that the mantra ‘build it and they will come’ is not true and there’s no point spending thousands of pounds on a change programme if employees won’t then use it.

The COM-B Model of Behaviour

There are now hundreds of behavioural change models and theories but, according to Dr Wolfgang Seidl, Partner, Workplace Health Consulting Leader UK and Europe, Mercer Marsh Benefit, one of the basic yet important concepts is the COM-B  model of behaviour change (cf. A brief introduction to the COM-B Model of behaviour and the PRIME Theory of motivation (ucl.ac.uk) ).

The COM-B identifies three factors that need to be present for any behaviour to occur: capability, opportunity and motivation.

1) capability – the physical and psychological extent to which someone is capable of the change

2) the opportunity – whether there are physical and social ways an employee can make this change at work

3) motivation – what automatic and reflective ways are there in place to keep the behaviour change going

Motivation is the biggest challenge

Of these 3 pillars – capability / opportunity / motivation – the biggest challenge is motivation, says Seidl, as typically this wanes over time. Just think about those new year’s resolutions!

“If you rely on motivation, then you are relying on willpower,” says Seidl. “And willpower isn’t particularly reliable. So, to bypass that motivation trap, employers need to apply a few tricks, and a really important part of this is how they use their environment. We know that environmental changes have been much more successful than actually just appealing to people’s willpower.”

Environment is key

He gives smoking in the workplace as an example of how employers changed behaviour. For decades employers had been investing in smoking cessation programmes “but they were always under utilised and hardly ever achieved much in terms of return on investment,” he says. But when a smoking ban was introduced there was suddenly a drop in people smoking, “far more than what had been achieved in the past appealing to people’s willpower.”

While this smoking example is extreme and draconian (and Seidl would rather advocate working with people to cultivate intrinsic motivation) it shows clearly the impact an employer can have changing their environment so it’s more conducive to wellbeing.

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Another environmental example he gives is an EAP he worked with who noticed that men were not using their mental health services, especially the blue collar working men. So, the company stitched the EAP helpline number into their overalls – therefore changing something about the employees’ environment – and there was a big increase in utilisation.

Harnessing potential of social groups

Part of creating the right environment is harnessing the potential of social groups within the workplace to encourage behaviour change together, with psychological research showing that connection can be hugely powerful when creating new habits.

“Even in  serious psychiatric conditions like PTSD, recovery is best for people who have one or more connections with a trusted human being, more powerful than psychiatric treatment on its own. Transferring this into the preventative space,iIf we can create some constructive social pressure, too, like social networks like Facebook or TikTok do so well, behaviour change programmes would be more successful as they create habit loops.”

As well as environmental changes, another trend we are seeing in the behavioural world is towards more personalisation in programmes rather than a one-size-fits all. This has become a lot more scalable and affordable with the emergence of apps tailored to individuals’ needs.

What is the best behavioural change programme?

“People are quite different in how they respond to behaviour change initiatives. When companies ask me ‘what is the best behaviour change programme?’ I say if you really want to do the best, you’ll have to personalise it. Companies mustn’t assume there’s a silver bullet for everyone. There may be a silver bullet for each of us.”

But the big gap in behavioural change strategies, which many employers are missing, is the emotional component, which can amplify motivation , argues Seidl:

“Humans can’t change by willpower alone, there needs to be strong emotion too.”

This means that humans have to reach a level of discomfort with the status quo that they are motivated to make a change; it’s not just something that would be ‘nice’ to have, it’s something they really want.

For instance, the overweight person who has just been diagnosed with diabetes so starts going to the running club, or the person who commits to going to therapy once a week because her suffering has reached an intolerable level.

Employers need to use emotion

Employers can tap into this psychology by helping employees see where there might be gaps in their current life that they want to fill, thereby underpinning the behaviour change with emotion and purpose, meaning they’re more likely to commit to it.

“You can help employees develop that emotional insight without homing in on their pain,” says Seidl. “You could talk to them about positive things, ask them why a certain goal is so important to them… is it associated with their family and wanting to live longer to see their children  grow up?”

According to the Academy of Executive Coaching, more and more organisations are investing in coaching skills, especially for managers. Today’s workforce also expect their managers to coach them, according to Gallup, and 97% of managers said that their team would benefit from more regular development and coaching conversations, with 89% of employees agreeing, according to Clear Review.

Managers can play a critical role in behaviour change

Karen Smart, head of consultancy at the Academy of Executive Coaching (AoEC)) believes that managers can play a critical role in instigating behaviour change amongst employees.

One of the most powerful behaviour-changing actions that line managers can take is role model the change that they want to see. If a manager is asking his/her team to look after themselves and avoid overworking, for example, then they have got to be doing that themselves, she says.

Another impactful action is to train line managers in “light touch” coaching skills which can go a “really long way”. Effective open questions might be the likes of: ‘what stops you from achieving that?’ or ‘what supports you towards that?’ and ‘what else might you need?’ ‘what would be one small step you could take to manage your workload more effectively?’ ‘what step could you take towards a more balanced life?’

The powerful thing about coaching is that by listening actively to employees, they feel heard and like they belong. This is a great footing to start on to then address behaviour change.

It’s not about telling people what to do

“It’s not just about listening for listening’s sake,” she says. “It’s about managers not telling people to do things but listening to them in a way that empowers the employees to make decisions for themselves.”

Once they make this decision – say to start going to the company yoga class at lunchtime – they are much more likely to keep their motivation up as it was their idea, not something they were told to do.

As Smart says, the pandemic, hybrid working and all the change in the workplace has meant it’s become much harder to understand what is going on with individuals and where their motivations lie, which is why coaching can be so powerful. We know, though, that many employees are re-evaluating their work lives currently leading to what has been dubbed the ‘Great Resignation’.

Rather than a threat,  Seidl argues we could actually see this as an opportunity when it comes to employee behaviour change.

The Great Resignation could be an opportunity

“The majority of people started thinking about work life balance more,” he says. “People want to change their behaviour. Let’s harness that in a positive way! Let’s ask them ‘what were your ideas when you came into the workplace? What were you dreaming about how you would connect with your purpose? How can you be fulfilled with what you do?”

Perhaps, then, ‘the Great Resignation’ could change its behaviour (or definition, at least) and become ‘the Great Inspiration’ to help employees reconnect with the person they now want to be at work.

You may also be interested in:

How Natwest Group is Collaborating to Embed Wellbeing as a Strategic Priority and Keeping People Connected

The power of storytelling to create behaviour change

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