Dispelling the Myths of Workplace Wellness Programs

September 14, 2017

You’ve probably observed a disconnect between the ideal version of workplace “wellness” and the all-too-common reality. In the ideal version, you have an office full of motivated, healthy employees who participate in your programs and achieve lasting results. But if you’re like a lot of other benefits and HR leaders, your reality looks a little more like this: minimal enrollment, low participation, and few lasting results.

Why is there such a big discrepancy here? There are a number of myths circulating around workplace wellness programs, and the perpetuation of these myths is preventing employers from helping employees make lasting health improvements in their lives.

We discussed these myths, and explored the science-backed solutions to those myths in more detail in a recent webinar, but you can keep reading here for the quick overview.

In this post, we’ll uncover and dispel the four prevailing myths in the wellbeing and health industry that hold back the true potential of behavior change in your employee population. Some of the insights include: the role of information and knowledge in habit change, the time it takes to change a habit, the downside to social challenges, and whether distinct programs are necessary for specific types of habits.


Myth 1: Education or information alone is enough to change someone’s habit.

We are all familiar with wellness activities like lunch and learns, seminars, and posters advertising the benefits of taking the stairs—in fact, 60% of the webinar audience said that they’d participated in a wellness program that was primarily information-based. This type of exposure is a great first step as it can spark initial inspiration, but unfortunately this inspiration is fleeting. We might read an article about the importance of drinking water on our everyday health, but still reach for the soda can in the moment because we haven’t changed the circumstances in our lives to maximize our water intake. While it’s very important to have informational resources available to employees, knowledge alone won’t lead to behavior change.

What will sustain the knowledge long enough to initiate action? For information to be effective, it must be immediately followed by a concrete, specific action that can be associated with the information. Next time your workplace hosts a lunch and learn on stress management tactics, for example, consider scheduling in a couple of breaks throughout the day to focus on your breathing or mindfulness. Building associations between information and action will help bolster positive change, and what is now a deliberate behavior will more easily become an automatic habit.

Myth 2: New habits can be formed in one to three weeks.

Ninety percent of the live audience had heard this myth, so it’s no wonder we believe that short-term programs can truly lead to lasting behavior change. It turns out, however, that this is an arbitrarily chosen length of time by a plastic surgeon named Maxwell Maltz that isn’t empirically supported to lead to lasting change. This myth has survived since the 1950s, but it’s time to debunk it.

To make a behavior automatic, so you unconsciously and effortlessly do it, requires at least 66 days—that’s about 10 weeks of focused, repeated action. For example, the average time it took participants in an experiment to eat a piece of fruit with lunch was 66 days. For a more effortful activity, like doing 50 crunches after morning coffee, the study found that the habit took at least 85 days to develop. Be patient, and be focused on one change at a time if you want to see long-term results.

Myth 3: Social challenges and competition are ideal jumpstarts to habit change.

We also learned that 78% of the live audience had participated in or hosted a social challenge in the past two years. Social competitions and events like step challenges or 5k races are a great way to get employees working together toward healthy behaviors, but may not be the most ideal intervention for lasting behavior change. This is because 1) they often accidentally exclude those that are not particularly healthy or motivated to participate, 2) they rely on the extrinsic motivator of competition, and 3) they use artificially perfect contexts to initiate the desired behavior.

Oftentimes, employees both enroll and participate in challenges and competitions primarily to be with others, or to win the game. What is too often lost by employees is the motive to change their health behavior for personal or intrinsic reasons. Competition is shown to be a great extrinsic motivator for short-term action. If you are interested in seeing sustainable change, though, you may need to add more to your wellbeing repertoire. Your goal should be for employees to feel personally compelled because they identify with the habit, are intrinsically motivated toward it, and practice it in authentic life conditions.

Myth 4: Physical, mental, and other types of wellness require different types of programs.

There’s an intuitive assumption that different behaviors require different approaches. However, it turns out that essentially all habits are formed in the exact same way. The process for building a long-term behavior requires a similar approach, whether the end goal is avoiding unhealthy foods or saving for retirement.

The disparate solutions most employers utilize miss an opportunity for streamlining employees’ behavior change. Consequently, employers will miss out on teaching employees the very empowering fact that they can form any type of habit in any aspect of life that they wish to have. It’s all just one process of focus, repetition, and environmental control and time.

Wrapping it all up

By dispelling these myths, we hope to support you in your efforts to effectively help your employees form lasting healthy habits. The science-based alternatives should help with better evaluating employee wellbeing programs, and to separate the fact from fiction when it comes to long-term health behavior change. If you’d like to explore any of these myths in more detail, be sure to check out the full webinar! You can watch the on-demand version by clicking the button below.

Watch the webinar now

Photo by Štefan Štefančík on Unsplash.
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