8th October 2020

How employers can help change habitual behaviour

22nd June, 2019

Laura Butler

Many ideas which underpin the concept of improving our wellbeing sound fairly simple: to reduce stress we should take regular breaks at work, avoid being glued to our screens 24/7, drink plenty of water, move as much as we can, and eat well.


Chances are, everyone in your workplace could manage to do all those things today. But what about tomorrow, next week or next year? Developing the motivation you currently have to make a change into a habit which lasts a lifetime is a big commitment, one we often underestimate (hence why New Year’s Resolutions rarely make it past the first month).


The cycle of initial motivation, followed by disappointment that results don’t happen overnight, giving up, and then regretting quitting so quickly is one that will be familiar to many.


While elements of your current lifestyle might not be particularly beneficial to you – or may even be harmful and add more stress in your life – it’s still difficult to change them for good. But people can, and do, overhaul their habits, and employers absolutely have a vital role to play in enabling and supporting that process.


How long does it take to form a habit?

 We have limited motivation and capacity to think about new things each day, and so as we repeat certain behaviours, the part of the brain which initiates those actions shifts. Once something is engrained in the sensory motor loop, it means you automatically act a certain way in response to cues1.


Experts say around 40 per cent of our behaviour is habitual – which means for almost half of our day we’re repeating actions based on past patterns. This is much less stressful for us, as it means we don’t have to think about every single thing we do from the second we open our eyes until the moment we go to sleep, and also enables us to get a lot more done.


But forming a new habit isn’t something which happens overnight, and many people have over-optimistic ideas of how long it may take.


In reality, research shows habits generally take at least 66 days to become automatic behaviour – and actually for some people it’s many months (up to 254 days) before something sticks2.


Of course, making a small change is often easier than a large one. But according to science, if you’re looking to implement habit change in the workplace, you really need to be in it for the long haul.


Knowing how long habit formation can take is key to understanding how to help employees change their routines and rituals to become more physically, mentally and financially wealthy.


While offering one-off workshops and talks on wellbeing can be really beneficial in heightening motivation, to translate that into long-term behaviour changes there absolutely needs to be regular follow up and ongoing support.


Leading from the top:

 It’s much easier to continue a habit if the behaviour of those around you matches your existing pattern. If those nearby are searching in their bags at 11am for a sugary snack, this provides a cue to you to do the same.


If nobody gets up for a screen break or to take a lunch-time walk, then your habit of staring at the screen from 9am til 5pm isn’t going to change.


We know humans like to act in accordance with the behaviours of others (the term ‘social proof’ has been coined in relation to how the actions of the majority have a huge persuasive impact on individuals3), the same studies of persuasion reveal the actions of those in a perceived position of authority are an even bigger influence on us than we might imagine.


Therefore, if we’re looking to change the culture of a workplace by encouraging staff to start new healthy habits, leading from the top and showing them that others are doing the same is a fantastic mechanism to get them on board initially.


But bearing in mind the time it takes to form a habit, it’s no use declaring your job done once you’ve been a good influence for a couple of days.


This isn’t just about getting your team to begin swapping their ‘bad’ habits for more positive ones, it’s about forming those real habits and the impact this has on the workplace.


Case Study— Long-Lasting Habit Change

Rhiannon | “I've wanted to improve my overall health for a long time, but have just never had the motivation to actually do it and do it wholeheartedly. Laura has really helped to bring my goal to life, and to make me focus on the real, emotional, and underlying reasons why being a healthier version of me is so important.  And, it's clicked.  I now have my ‘why’ firmly ingrained in my mind with the emotion behind this helping me to put the steps in place each week, and to take action. It's not just for the short term, the changes I'm making will continue and become my new way of life.


“I’ve always wanted to become a runner, but never thought I had the time to do it and commit. I’m now well into my Couch to 5K programme and proudly call myself a runner. I know that I’m an all-round better version of myself when I’ve been able to do it, and continual encouragement and praise for achievements (and support for any blips) along the way has helped running become a normal, daily habit for me.”


Being mindful:

Much of the work I do is around encouraging people to be mindful – to take the time to listen to how their bodies respond to certain foods, to actively think about what stresses them and what relaxes them in life, and to consider new exercises they could try which might suit them.


This is all centred around focusing on our existing behaviours, which might not serve us well and may cause us undue stress, as well as identifying why we are choosing to form new habits.


As well as encouraging individuals to change their habits, really thinking about what we’re doing and why is extremely useful in a work environment too: mindfulness lets us explore why we might be stressed and prompts us to take steps to try and reduce this.


It can also enable us to help others with their goals: walking meetings, online channels where staff can share wellbeing tips, and buddy schemes where team members with common goals link up to support each other are all very easily-implementable ideas that clients of mine have put into practice when thinking about habits and how to change them.


Three top tips for creating habits:

1.    Sharing successes, no matter how small, can be a really powerful way to encourage the habit-changing process. Scheduling in time within a team meeting or creating another suitable channel where staff can regularly share what’s going well for them helps keep their ‘new habit creation’ at the top of the agenda for everyone.

2.    Support and encourage. Many employers now offer health and wellbeing programmes and perks – while personal training or gym membership may be among the most common, there are plenty of other perks which could help employees looking to change their habits, for example: water bottles to encourage hydration, office snack box subscriptions, or access to massages or wellbeing therapies.

3.    Does your culture set people up for success? It’s no use promoting the idea of stress-relieving behaviours if staff are likely to be frowned at for working flexible hours, or taking time out for a lunchtime walk or meditation session. And there’s no point talking about relaxing evenings full of endorphin-inducing exercises and carefully planned meals if everyone is so over loaded they regularly have to stay late at the office or take work home.

Laura Butler

Laura Butler runs welLBe Coaching, a team of healthcare experts who specialise in creating long-lasting habit change for individuals and organisations, building emotional resilience in the workplace, and healthy attitudes and lifestyles. For more information, please visit

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