Why Intrinsic Motivation Matters for Employee Wellbeing Programs

August 9, 2017

Picture this: You’re walking through a beautiful, livable space filled with natural light and plants. You see people in small groups talking enthusiastically, some are seated at couches and in small booths, others are heading off to a yoga session on the roof, while others are snacking on fresh organic fruit.

Just to be clear: I’m not describing the hottest new health club, but what’s becoming more and more common in the workplace.

Employers are putting an increasing emphasis on employee wellbeing—53% would like to create a culture that promotes health and wellness according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2017 Employee Benefits Report, which means that it’s important to spend some time thinking about how to create a successful program.

If you’re looking to promote real positive change among your employees, providing resources and programs is laudable, but it’s also essential to understand how to tap into their intrinsic motivation. By helping employees create goals that are meaningful to them, you’ll be setting them on the road to success.

Let’s take a look at how intrinsic motivation works and how you can incorporate it into your wellbeing programs for maximum success.

What is intrinsic motivation?

Essentially, intrinsic motivation is when someone feels compelled to act on their own volition—they do something because they want to do it. When people are intrinsically motivated, they choose to do something because the act itself is satisfactory and fulfilling and separate from any other external outcome.

Psychologists have identified three gradual steps of identity assimilation that ultimately lead to intrinsic motivation: identified regulation, integrated regulation, and knowledge accomplishment stimulation. Let’s look at each one in a bit more detail.

Identified regulation takes place when someone has identified a personal reason for wanting to make a change. Perhaps they’re trying to eat healthier in order to feel more energetic or adopting a new fitness regime so they can lose weight. Elaine S. Elliot and Carol S. Dweck of Harvard’s Laboratory of Human Development published a study showing that people who are focused more on learning and personal mastery are more motivated than those who see goals as performance-based and are looking to prove their competence to others. This underscores the importance of having a goal that’s personal.

Integrated regulation occurs when a person begins to include the behavior into their own identity, so they label themselves as “a runner,” “a kale-lover,” etc. The ways that goals are framed can also have an impact on someone’s likelihood to follow through with them. For example, one study found that value/identity-based goals led to greater rates of achievement than behavior-specific goals. This means that making the shift from thinking of something as a goal (like running twice a day) to considering it part of who you are and what your values are (being a runner) can be a key step in creating intrinsic motivation and sustained behavior change.

Knowledge accomplishment stimulation happens when a person experiences positive emotions like pleasure, fun, enjoyment, and satisfaction in relation to the behavior. So, for example, after cutting out junk food for a few weeks, they feel happier and healthier and no longer crave fries and genuinely just want to eat kale (hey, it can happen!).

Now that we’ve covered how intrinsic motivation works in general, let’s take a look at a few ways you can promote intrinsic motivation among your employees.

1. Make program content meaningful

As we’ve seen above, intrinsic motivation occurs when someone finds personal meaning for doing something. They really dive into why something matters for them, moving beyond external reasons or expectations. So when you think about employee wellbeing programs, make sure that you really do a deep dive into why employees might care about these topics. Look for ways that you can inspire them to feel personally invested in making a change.

2. Focus on storytelling

Think about it: People go home after a hard day’s work, and one of the first things they do is turn on the TV. What are they looking for? A story. They want to laugh, feel emotion, get excited, and escape into another world. The desire to do this is strong for most of us—Americans watch an average of five hours every day! By using intrigue and humor, your chances of getting employees to care are ten times greater than if you just sent them an informational newsletter.

3. Keep the tone light and entertaining

It’s crucial to think about tone when trying to tap into intrinsic motivation, especially when you mix in the shame and guilt that often comes with health and wellbeing issues. Take it too far and you have a perfect recipe for resentment. The key to intrinsic motivation is all in the tone of the program delivered. Think about what will make people feel excited and hopeful rather than ashamed of their current health habits, and you’ll be heading in the right direction! Remember, the way messages are framed can influence how successful someone is with achieving their goal. If they’re focused on fulfilling a personal goal (rather than getting approval from others), they’ll be more likely to succeed.

A few final thoughts

Now you have the building blocks of intrinsic motivation and what it means in the context of your wellbeing program. Be sure to keep these points in mind as you consider the type of content or programming that you’ll be using. Remember: If you’re ultimately trying to drive sustained behavior change, you want to make it as easy as possible for employees to get to those positive happy feelings they’ll experience when they’ve fully embraced a healthy habit. By helping employees identify goals that they care about personally, you’re making it much more likely that they’ll engage in long-term behavior change.

Have any success stories of how you’ve managed to motivate behavior change among employees? Leave us a note in the comments section to let us know!

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