Cracking the Code of Behavioral Change for Employees’ Healthy (and More Productive) Well-Being

01/04/2018 10:52 pm ET

Behavioral science is a relatively new and influential domain. It helps us understand ourselves better—which is certainly welcome as we come to recognize how we are predisposed to stick with routines no matter how uncomfortable, unhealthy or illogical they may be. We can now also work out how to overcome the burden of this inertia, modify our habits positively and maintain new activities—such as improving our health, safety, or productivity—for ourselves or our employees.

We have just opened the yearly window of hope for New Year’s Resolutions. No doubt, you have habits you are trying to modify as well as new ones you have just started. You are likely also working on certain improvements at your company. What behavior changes will help improve your employees’ or teams’ engagement and overall well-being—will they last beyond the end of January?!

Just knowing we want to act differently does not mean we manage to do so, especially when attempting to sustain a new set of behaviors, even if it is clearly in our best interests to do so. Employers wishing to implement improvements that require employees to adopt new routines are faced with the same challenges. Desire, intention and sustainable execution are all very different things.

I spoke with Dr. Rajiv Kumar, President and Chief Medical Officer of Virgin Pulse, about their employee well-being focused products and the integration of behavior change science. They emphasize overall value on investment (VOI) as a more appropriate way to evaluate the profound impact of their programs on clients’ employees’ well-being over the long-term.

Wade: What generated your interest in employee well-being?

Kumar: I was a medical student when I became interested in obesity and what could be done to prevent rather than cure it. I also looked at how group-based activities could support behavior change. I started out by gamifying a 12-week diet challenge, creating a cohesive group focused on the same goal. It became enormously popular and there were many great success stories. When I launched it a second time, local employers were calling up, wanting to pay for their employees to participate and I knew I was on to something. I dropped out of medical school to develop the concept with a partner as the program grew larger, returning later to complete my studies.

Wade: How did you develop your approach?

Kumar: It was a combination. I recognized that gamification was important to engage participants and make the experience entertaining and enjoyable. This format was aligned with the work of Dr. Fogg, a behavior design expert at Stanford. He believes in breaking down behaviors into micro actions in order to modify them through a process: get specific, make it easy, trigger the behavior. Furthermore, this repeatable sequence allows people over time to tackle harder, more challenging things, building motivation to do more.

Wade: What is the process and what are key elements for changing habits?

Kumar: We teach habits as skills and have many videos on our website to show how habits work, whatever habit an employee is trying to change—such as steps taken, calorific intake, or hours of sleep. There are metrics to monitor improvements; milestones to celebrate; and components to sharing socially. These all confirm progress and reinforce commitment to continued involvement and advancement to the next goal. We have found this approach to be extremely successful and employees move down health risk categories (noting that our average participant at the beginning has a Body Mass Index of 29). Our mantra is Learn. Do. Become.

Wade: How are these changes sustained over the long-term and how does a team-based approach help?

Kumar: We have found that financial rewards are an important element. It gets people’s attention to get started in the program, knowing they can build points for cash rewards up to around $200. The money also keeps many participants going when their motivation lags. It works if you give money in a smart way—little bits over time. We have clients for seven and more years with 60 percent participation rates. Behavioral science has informed the rewards program, which includes making things incrementally harder as people advance, giving them new challenges, allowing them to feel successful when the new goal has been met. Fogg’s work is evident here – ability, motivation, triggers – so we support employees with push notifications to make it easy for them to participate, monitor progress, and keep going. We are especially good at 30- or 90-day challenges, creating cohesive teams across a company, generating excitement as new relationships form and people spur each other on.

Wade: Who are your typical customers, and what has been the impact on them and their employees?

Kumar: Our customers are mostly sophisticated employers who are generally already persuaded of the benefits of well-being programs and seek to utilize improved personal employee outcomes to support engagement and retention. We gather hard data for traditional ROI analysis—such as positive shifts in employees’ biometrics as well as decreases or slower increases in healthcare costs for employers. “Soft” data reinforces our value with higher net promoter scores and program participants noting increased focus, more energy and being twice as likely to be promoted. Relative to their competitors, Virgin Pulse clients have seen two to four per cent improvement in productivity, and up to six per cent for those companies which had the highest employee participation (data from publicly-listed clients over a multi-year period).

Changing Habits for Good

Tangible support for employees to modify habits and improve their health and general well-being long-term is a powerful attraction and retention tool. For 2018, activate New Year’s Resolutions at your company using science-based approaches that can change and sustain employee behaviors for good, just as Virgin Pulse does. The value on the investment and effort will be experienced by all.

Sophie is Workforce Innovator and founder of Flexcel Network. She consults to companies helping them create sustainable work environments - effectively attracting, engaging, and retaining a multigenerational, distributed and productive workforce. She speaks frequently to corporate audiences about Future-of-Work issues. Follow Sophie @ASophieWade. Read her new book Embracing Progress. Next Steps for the Future of Work.

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