The 5 Pillars of Employee Behavior Change: Pillar #3

October 25, 2017

You have high hopes for your employee wellbeing program—you’re going to motivate and inspire your employees to eat healthier, exercise more, quit smoking… well, the list goes on and on. And while you may have good intentions, if you’re like the majority of HR and benefits leaders, you’ve probably seen a bit of a gap between your hopes and reality. It can be hard to get the numbers you’d like to see for enrollment and participation—not to mention lasting engagement and long-term behavior change.

Part of the problem is that many programs neglect the science of behavior change, which minimizes their chances of long-term success.

In this series, we’ll explore the five pillars of behavior change that will help you design an effective employee wellbeing program. You can find the posts on Pillar #1 here and Pillar #2 here.

The third pillar focuses on the topic of, well, focus! Let’s investigate why it’s important to narrow in on one habit rather than trying to make multiple changes at the same time.

Pillar #3: Focus employees on developing one healthy habit at a time

When we think of “habits” we often think of the bad things we do that we wish we didn’t: biting our nails, smoking, or watching too much TV. We don’t consider the most basic, automatic things we do every day that are good for us: brushing our teeth, spending time with our kids or pets, the morning routines we’ve optimized that let us make it to work on time. But one thing we do know is that habits are hard to form—and break. Social scientists now know that it can take between 66 and 88 days to form a new healthy habit—or for a new behavior to become automatic. It takes nearly 10 weeks of repetitive, reliable action for a new behavior to stick.

The chart below shows how long it took participants in a study to reach “automaticity” with a new behavior. The first chart shows that introducing the habit of eating a piece of fruit with lunch took 66 days to become automatic. To begin doing 15 minutes of exercise before dinner, it took 70 to 80 days, and for doing 50 sit-ups after morning coffee, it took 88 days!

These results indicate that habits that require more effort or are more disruptive to someone’s existing routine take longer to acquire. So it’s important to focus on one significant habit change rather than trying to introduce several at once.

It’s understandable that employee wellbeing programs are based on short-term activities covering a spectrum of big themes like healthy eating or exercise—that’s human nature. When we set a goal for ourselves to lose weight or to feel better, we want and usually try to do it all at once—eat better, exercise, drink more water, etc. Unfortunately, we all know this doesn’t work.

But if the end goal of your employee wellbeing strategy is long-term behavior change, keep in mind how long your programs need to be and the level of effort and dedication required on the employee’s part to create a new healthy habit. And don’t forget that they’re oftentimes also trying to break a negative habit.

The good news is that research on hyper-focused habit change is extremely positive. If you can help employees deep dive on one change, for at least 10 weeks, the likelihood of that habit becoming a permanent behavior is extremely high.

Want to read about all five pillars of employee behavior change in one place? Be sure to download a copy of The 5 Pillars of Employee Behavior Change eBook. Grab your copy here!

Photo by Jack Gisel on Unsplash
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