Encouraging health at work with Behavioral Science

Why does our health matter at work?

Because we spend one-third of our adult lives at work! And because many studies have shown that a healthy employee (mentally and physically) is more productive, less absent and more collaborative.

Employers have an opportunity – and a responsibility – to help their employees to better manage their health in the workplace.

They can support in terms of physical health (promote healthier eating, encourage physical activity, etc.) and mental health (encourage breaks and disconnection, reduce stress related to the work environment, technology, noise, etc.).

There are many companies that are committed to helping their employees to manage their health. But too often, companies are satisfied with conventional tools based on just sharing information (awareness meetings, training, communication campaigns), which are certainly useful, but insufficient to change behavior.

Behavioral economics shows us, in study after study, that the right information and good intentions are not enough to make us adopt the right behaviors. But simple and cheap Nudges can help us.

Employers can use behavioral science to activate relevant biases to actually change behaviors.

Let’s take 2 examples:

1. How to reduce physical inactivity at work / encourage people to move more

Risks linked to a sedentary lifestyle (diabetes, heart disease …) are known. But the good news is that research shows that by replacing even as little as 2 minutes of sitting each hour with walking, people lowered their chances of premature death by 33% compared to people just sitting.

Here are some biases that can be useful for encouraging more physical activity at work:

  • Default

The default choice is one of the most powerful levers for changing behavior. Defaults are usually defined as ‘choices that have already been preselected, making it necessary for a person to take active steps to avoid them if they want to choose another option’. We humans are more likely to stick to the default option rather than look for an alternative, which requires time and energy.

To encourage people to stand up, one usage of the default option can simply be to remove chairs from some meeting rooms! It’s good for health but also to respect the timing of the meeting – people tend to be much more efficient when forced to stand!

  • Salience and Attractiveness

The salience bias refers to the fact that individuals are more likely to focus on items or information that are more prominent and ignore those that are less so. Improving the attractiveness of the idea helps to make the desired behavior more salient and appealing, so we are even more likely to adopt it.

For instance, salience and attractiveness can be used to promote stair-climbing: By improving the appearance of the stairs with colors, pictures, and messages that will generate interest and make them more appealing than the elevator.

  • Messenger and role model

We are influenced by who delivers the information and by the way other people behave. We are more likely to adopt a certain behavior if people close to us already do it.

At work, use managers to set a positive example and define a social norm. For instance, encourage them to propose “walking meetings” to their team, which have a lot of advantages beyond health, including creativity and engagement.

 2. How to encourage healthy eating at work

At work, we are likely to eat unhealthily and mindlessly, especially when eating in front of our computer. We are also prone to snacking all day long, and forgetting to drink water because we are to focused or rushed with our day.

And yet, healthy eating is fundamental to good health and well-being. It helps us to maintain a healthy weight and reduces our risk of several diseases (including type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure).

In that context, some simple principles can be put in place to help employees toward better eating behaviors:

  • Easiness, Friction and Reward

The easier and more accessible a behavior is to us, the more likely we are to choose that behavior. For instance, at work cafeteria put healthy food and water at eye level and made it easy to grab to improve employees’ eating habits.

On the contrary, if you want to prevent a behavior, create friction. Meaning, make unhealthy behaviors less visible and/or more difficult to access.

Finally, reward good behaviors to sustain them over time: give both short- and long-term advantages to those who adopt healthy behaviors.

Google has taken these insights into their cafeterias: they moved candies to opaque dispensers, and it reduced employees’ caloric intake from sweets by 9% in just a week. They also found that placing water at eye level increased water intake by 45% and reduced caloric intake from drinks by 7%.

  • Pre-commitment

When we commit to something ahead of time, we are more likely to stick to our goals.

One way to active pre-engagement is to encourage people to make what we call “implementation plans” or implementation intentions,” meaning to think in detail about when and how they will take action.

For a healthy diet, the best way to activate this bias is to ask employees to pre-order their meal before lunch time.

  • Pain of paying

The Pain of Paying principle is about the psychological link between payment and pleasure. The more we are conscious of the money we spend for something, the less we have pleasure from purchasing it. It has been proven that spending money actually activates the areas in our brain that are associated with physical pain and feelings of disgust.

When it comes to applying this principle to healthy eating, you can discourage people from eating unhealthy food by asking for a cash payment for this food, whereas allowing bank card or digital payments for healthy food.

Clearly, Behavioral Economics and Nudges can do a lot for healthy behaviors at work in a simple and cheap way and establish itself as an additional useful tool for companies to help their employees be healthier.

Interested in knowing more about how to use behavioral science to encourage health at work? Get in touch.