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Changing Healthy Habits in Workplaces; What Works

11th March, 2020

Dr Heather McKee



Research has shown that 40% of our day is made up of the habits that we have. It is our routine that matters not willpower.


We didn't lay in bed this morning weighing up pros and cons of dental hygiene, we didn’t ask ourselves am I in the right mood to brush my teeth today? Am I too tired to do it? We just did it! And we did it because it is a habit.


Studies show that simply understanding how habits work can make them easier to control.


What we know from these studies is that consideration of the key factors that create habit change can positively affect your employee uptake and adherence to your organisation’s wellbeing programme.


Below I outline 3 evidence-based steps to consider for employee wellbeing programmes. Whether your company has an existing wellbeing programme of work, or is looking to devise a new one, this can be a useful place to start supporting your employees with the skills they need to create lasting changes to their health.


Start with why


Often, I see companies rolling out wellbeing programmes that fail to consider and embed both the company’s values and the individual’s values. These types of programmes have poorer employee uptake as their purpose isn’t aligned with what is most important to their employees.


Wellbeing programmes that focus employees’ attention on extrinsic goals alone, i.e. a number on the scales, or a specific step count, or a numbers-based challenge/competition may work in the short term but in the long term they tend to fail.


These programmes fail as they are overly focused on the outcome. The enjoyment of achieving this outcome tends to be fleeting, and can be quickly replaced by a new goal.


On the other hand, programmes that involve process and values-based goals - goals that are formed as they hold a certain significance - because they mean something to both your employees and your company as a whole, are much more sticky.


These are known as intrinsic goals as they are intrinsically/internally motivating. Because intrinsic goals are linked to higher values (in other words, the things that matter most) they are much more motivating over the long term.


How to start with why in your organisation


A key question to ask prior to delivering any sort of wellbeing programme is: how does your wellbeing programme reflect and embed the values of your organisation and your employees?


How do you understand your employees’ values? Ask! When working with a company one of the first steps I take is to hold 1:1 interview with identified members of staff across a range positions, wellbeing motivations, and backgrounds to understand their values, motives, enablers and barriers to change.


Knowing what may or may not fit within their roles, lives and values is key to getting started on the right foot. Having a clear picture of what is most important for your employees will help in the co-creation of a wellbeing programme that fits with the exact values and needs of your company.


Lastly, it’s vital to provide the rationale behind why you choose to deliver a certain wellbeing programme, how it links in with your companies values as well as the values your employees. This step is essential if you want to create a programme that not only engages more employees but one that’s more likely to last.


Willpower is a limited resource - don’t try everything at once!


Often when launching a new wellbeing programme, companies think giving their staff lots of options will be supportive. However, this tends to lead to overwhelm and can be suffocating to the point where people end up not attending a particular service or offering as they are confused. They can’t work out if it’s right for them!


The thing is, willpower is like a muscle if you over train it, it becomes fatigued and you end up not being able to exercise it at all. Hence, why after a few weeks we tend to give in to temptation, stray from our goals and end up feeling like we are back at square one again.


However, if you train your willpower in adequate amounts, taking proper rest and recovery, like a muscle it can grow stronger over time.



How to overcome the willpower myth in your organisation


The truth is embedding a wellbeing programme in a company needs to be a gradual process in order for it to be sustainable. It needs to be achieved through consistent, small, but positive, changes.

These changes are intentionally tiny so that they don’t feel too punishing or restrictive. Therefore, they don’t use up too much of our precious willpower.


Companies that drip feed in programmes over time, based on employees’ values and needs tend to have much better long-term adherence. Companies that guide their employees through the options, provide a rationale for their choices (in particular if that rationale is embraced and endorsed by senior leadership) tend to engage more of their workforce and are more likely to bring about lasting changes.


Find joy

Research has found that those who are best able to stick to their healthy habits long term are those that enjoy those habits. “Want to” goals are much more likely to be achieved than “Have to” goals.

It’s easier to pursue the “Want to” goals as it feels more effortless and fun. Instead of focusing on how difficult it is to get your employees to make healthy choices, it’s important to let go of this mindset and instead focus on those choices that bring your employees the most enjoyment.

How to support your employees to find joy

There are many ways in which organisations can go about this. Providing a range of intensity of activities is one way that not only allows companies to engage more staff but allows your employees to progress at a rate suited to them and thus makes the journey more enjoyable.

For example, holding a lunchtime walk/jog/run that allows people to self-select the intensity and time (15/30/45minutes) that works for them will more likely engage those that wouldn’t normally engage.

There are so many other ways to enhance enjoyment within programmes. This could be through introducing novelty talks, adding in an altruistic “helping others” element, mentor walks, experimentation e.g. healthy food bake offs, or a sponsored dress up company family fun walk/run. However, the key is to make it relevant to your organisation.

A vital question to ask when designing an employee wellbeing programme is how can we optimise for enjoyment? How can you make your wellbeing programme as fun (and therefore engaging as possible)?

Focusing your wellbeing programme on supporting your employees to find healthy habits that they enjoy is important. This makes it more likely that they will engage in these behaviours more often and thus can repeat them enough until that healthy choice becomes the easier choice and over time: the automatic choice.

It may even become as natural and automatic for them as brushing their teeth.


Dr Heather McKee

Dr Heather McKee is the UK’s leading health behaviour change specialist, speaker and founder of drheathermckee.co.uk Her mission is to help people create lifelong healthy habits through equipping them with the skills, knowledge and confidence to maintain these habits daily. She supports businesses through her behavioural audit (a review of their digital/in-person wellbeing programme) to help understand the behavioural gaps, opportunities and create an evidence-based blueprint from which they can increase uptake and long-term engagement in an existing/new wellbeing programme. Dr McKee’s research has been published internationally in academic journals and is featured in Time, Vogue, The Times, and the BBC.

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