Habit Change & Workplace Wellbeing: Part 2

August 24, 2017

In Part 1 of this series, we explored some of the factors that go into the mechanics of habit change and why it’s so hard to adjust our behavior, even if we have a strong desire to make a change. If you missed it or want a quick refresher, you can see that post here.

In this post, we’re going to look at how the science of behavior change can impact your employee wellbeing programs, and what that means for you as you design them.

Finding: Habits occur automatically.

What this means for you:

Learn how to leverage the mechanics of habit formation in your workplace. One place to begin is with company rituals. For example, before meetings, always take a group stretch break. Soon your employees, who are likely tired going into the meeting, will not only associate the meeting room with a stretch (dopamine trigger), but will feel physically awakened, creating even more of a reward. Building unconscious expectations into the work day can develop these routines. Maybe your employees will even start to crave meetings. (Hey, it’s possible!)

It’s important to know that your brain doesn’t forget old habits, either. In fMRI studies for those that successfully changed to low-sugar diets, when shown a piece of cake, their brain reward pathways still lit up. But what also lit up, which prevented the actual desire to consume the cake, was the part of the brain in charge of self-control. The takeaway? Rather than just thinking about eradicating bad habits, think about the positive ones you can build over them. Your brain will always be familiar with the cues that set you off, so give it an alternative instead of nothing.

Finding: Habits need to be repeated over a sustained period of time.

What this means for you:

One-off solutions and short-term behavior changes won’t stick. Your brain needs time to learn and associate certain behaviors with a certain cues and rewards. With enough time, these will last. And, you can start using the workplace as the starting point for some of those habit cues.

Other people can help with habits, too. Not only can coworkers keep you accountable and on track, but when everyone is working toward the same behavior, there’s a collective sense of belief that forms around the ability to build the habit.

For programs that only last a few weeks, you might begin the process of shifting your values and your environment, but the practice of the habit is active. Just as you likely didn’t realize how much of your day is consumed by habits, it’s easy to think of habits in their ideal, deliberate manner. But if it’s still effortful, you’re not there yet. Belief in the behavior is only the start.

Finding: People get overwhelmed by decision fatigue and resort back to old automatic habits.

What this means for you:

Many wellbeing programs focus on multiple complex behavior changes. It’s not uncommon to see the overzealous examples of perfectly well-balanced people that manage to hit the gym every morning, meditate after work, avoid all carbs, and manage to sleep eight hours a night. We’d all like to be that paradigm of perfect wellbeing, but it likely isn’t going to happen.

If you want to see real, lasting results, approach habit change slowly but surely. Set out a quarterly goal across the company. Choose one habit. You’re better off putting in the effort toward something that’s actually going to last rather than spending time on a large variety of wellness programming to fix exercise, nutrition, stress, and productivity habits simultaneously. Instead of becoming the green-smoothie drinking, Pilates practicing, mindful and well-rested fiend, think about being the person in your office that takes a single sip of water every time they sit at their desk. Trust me, it will be much more transformative in the long term.

The Takeaway

As you’ve now learned through both Part 1 and Part 2 on habit change, habits are pretty basic behaviors, but incredibly challenging to change. By leveraging the workplace to establish new habit routines, you have a greater chance of seeing positive results.

Start to fight the automaticity of behaviors by writing over them with new, consistent routines at work. Utilize the social support of coworkers to help encourage constant practice at a target behavior. And, most importantly, be forgiving in your habit-change aspirations—you won’t suddenly wake up one day with a revamped daily routine. You have to build that from the ground up, one teeny, automatic habit at a time.

Want to dive more into how habit change works and what this means for your workplace wellbeing program? Check out our webinar, “Dispelling the Myths of Workplace Wellness Programs.”

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