Tips for creating lasting behaviour change around wellbeing

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Changing behaviour and sustaining the change is notoriously difficult. Just think about, as an individual, how hard it is to keep to diets or New Year’s resolutions.

Instigating behavioural change, then, across a workforce so employees collectively adopt wellbeing changes is even more challenging. For this feature we’ve spoken to people who have effectively done this for their top practical tips.

1. Define wellbeing and the behaviour you want to change

This may seem obvious but ‘wellbeing’ can mean very different things to different people. When Jonathan Gawthrop, executive director, wellbeing, sustainability & assurance at facilities management firm Emcor, is considering a wellbeing behaviour that the company wants employees to adopt, the first thing he does is collate different perspectives from across the organisation. This is because it’s vital to have a comprehensive understanding of the behaviours you are trying to change before you start the process of change.

“My start point is always asking: what behaviour do we want to change? We have a lot of conversations around this and collate all of that information together to arrive at a definition,” says Gawthrop.

2. Behaviour change theory can be extremely useful

Gawthrop finds behaviour change models like the COM-B  model of behaviour change very helpful in nailing definitions because they show the levers you need to pull to make change happen. He describes the Behaviour Change Wheel, which feeds out the COM-B, as “a cracker” because it’s highly practical and “it enables you to create a systems map of the behaviour you’re trying to address”.

For those who might be intimidated by the ‘science’ or the technicality of models, Gawthrop highly recommends Business in the Community (BITC)’s resources which “are written in a lay person’s terminology rather than academic”.

Gawthrop used this model and approach when trying to instigate behaviour change around the language used within the company. Previously words like ‘empathy’ and ‘vulnerability’ were quite challenging for employees to use and accept but, having gone through a successful behaviour change programme, people in leadership positions are now “proud to be talking about their level of empathy and EQ”.

3. Stick to the priorities you’ve identified & don’t be side tracked by the latest shiny tech

There’s been an explosion of wellbeing offerings directed at employers from wellbeing services to digital health apps. As Gosia Bowling, emotional wellbeing national lead at Nuffield Health, says, it’s extremely temping to jump to solutions such as easily accessible tech or apps, which can “look appealing but are not always ‘sticky’ or effective in the long term”.

In order to avoid being sidelined, always remember the goals and strategy you’ve identified and “be clear about the behaviours you wish to encourage in order to create a healthy and thriving workforce”.

“Work towards achievable goals, but stick to them,” she says. “Starting small but committing to and planning for change across the entire organisation, will have more meaningful impact than loftier unrealistic or unclear plans. You can build on these changes to impact further gains.”

4. Know and engage your audience

In our Make a Difference Media webinar, together with AXA Health, entitled ‘Is Your Workforce Fit to Thrive in 2022 and Beyond?”, Dr Shaun Davis emphasised that to empower employees to make changes, it’s essential to know who your audience is, think about different communication and learning styles but also to think about how and where colleagues will be receiving your messages.

He also advocates encouraging manager role modelling and cross-manager communication to ensure engagement with wellbeing plans (see the full report full of tips here).

5. Watch your language

As our Make a Difference report, called ‘Creating A Joined-Up Workplace Wellbeing Toolkit’ in conjunction with togetherall, advises ‘make sure you are using language that will resonate and will have a meaningful impact’ and ‘try to avoid telling people what is good for them as it doesn’t result in behavioural change and can even cause a backlash from the team’.

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6. Verb your nouns

When it comes to language, Fran Longstaff, head of psychology at Fika, suggests turning nouns into verbs around a specific action. So rather than talk about wellbeing in terms of large abstract concepts like ‘burnout’ which could seem overwhelming to change, she suggests simplifying your language and making it action-orientated:

“Break it down into the specific behaviours that you want to see more of, like more people committing to ‘switching off’ in the evenings and those that perhaps you want to see less of like ‘fewer unfocused stressful meetings’.

7. Create the right culture for change & make change easy

Environment is key to changing behaviour so organisations need to create environments which ‘nudge’ employees to the desired behaviour and a culture, as Nuffield Health’s Bowling says, which facilitates the creating of ‘new norms’.

“The effort required to do things differently often puts people off,” says Bowling. “Reducing the effort required can accelerate lasting change, by facilitating new habits.”

If, for example, you are encouraging employees to eat more healthily, then ensure that at meetings the snacks on offer are nutritious and wholesome. Or if you want employees to be more active then provide them with automatic gym membership saving them the hassle of a registration process.

8. Harness the power of the social group

Creating initiatives that operate at a team level, as well as an individual level, can work really well in instigating behaviour change. But as, Fran Longstaff, head of psychology at Fika says, many wellbeing initiatives focus just on the individual but changing individual behaviour is very difficult.

“Equally, our individual wellbeing is very much a reflection of the teams that we work in. And we know that adherence to initiatives is generally higher in group activities than individual activities,” she says. “So use the power of social learning, encouragement, and accountability. And also give teams autonomy to tailor their own training to match their specific needs.”

9. Be inspired by Covid

This might seem like an odd mantra to adopt but one of the (few) silver linings to come out of the global pandemic was that it showed, as Bowling says, “the art of the possible” when it comes to employee behaviour change.

“The pandemic was a catalyst for rapid change,” she says. “There are clear opportunities to build on this change.”

10. The fundamentals

Our post of this article on LinkedIn generated many comments – including this from luminary Stephen Bevan, who is Head of HR Research Development with the Institute for Employment Studies:

“I worry even more that we are placing too much emphasis on encouraging behavioural adjustments among employees as part of wellbeing programmes. Of course we need employees to engage, but fruit & Pilates ‘evangelism’ is only going to have limited impact if people are in badly designed jobs in toxic workplaces and being managed by people with no empathy. It’s like putting staff through sheep-dip resilience training so they cope better with impossible deadlines & being bullied. The design & quality of the work we ask people to do is a much bigger factor in promoting healthy workplaces than whether 10% more people are eating lettuce every Wednesday”.

You might also be interested in:

The power of storytelling to create behaviour change

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

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