Sometimes, employees need a healthy push

Rebecca Weitzel
Rebecca Weitzel

Imagine you’re a child again sitting on a park swing, your legs not quite touching the ground. To move, you face two choices: thrust your legs back and forth as hard as you can to generate enough momentum to swing or ask a friend for a push. You get a push and soar through the air, maintaining flight with a gentle kick of your legs.

  When it comes to daily habits that affect our health, how often do we find ourselves sitting on that proverbial swing, lacking the energy to overcome inertia to change? We look for someone or something to give us a push — a coach, a pill, a reason to do things differently. As workers who spend an average of 9.4 hours a day on the job, many of our behavioral patterns are tied to the workplace. Moreover, many of our friendships and support networks are connected to work. By leveraging these time and relationship resources, employers are uniquely positioned to offer a gentle nudge to help employees adopt healthier habits that improve lives and lead to a happier, more creative, more energized work force.

The first step to promoting healthier behaviors is finding appropriate power sources to generate momentum. Borrowing from Kurt Lewin’s change model, leaders must find ways to disrupt organizational routines enough to “unfreeze” employees’ current behavioral patterns to allow for new habits to develop. Policies, penalties, rewards and influence can all be effective power sources. When developing a strategy for nudging your organization in a healthier direction, it’s important to select the best power source for the behavioral changes you want to promote. Consider these four examples:

Policies: Policies can be highly effective if employees respect their leaders. Well-written policies can affect such health issues as safety and workplace environment. A company vehicle policy that addresses distracted driving or tobacco use can result in abrupt behavioral changes. Conversely, policies that infringe on choices of what to eat, drink or do during their breaks could result in only resentment.

Penalties: Some corporations have shifted from participation-based wellness programs in which healthy behaviors are rewarded to outcomes-based programs in which poor health as measured by biometric screenings results in increased health insurance premiums. While outcomes-based programs could help speed behavioral change and produce a return on investment, they also could lead to such unintended consequences as lower employee morale and program avoidance.

Rewards: Incentive programs that reward healthy behaviors tend to be more readily embraced. Incentive programs work best when rewards are kept relatively small and initiatives are integrated into the fabric of a healthy culture. Incentives must be used wisely to ensure they don’t strip away a person’s internal drive and decrease motivation. Effective rewards provide enough of an incentive to help people get started, but not so much the reward becomes the sole motivating force. To find balance, it’s helpful to survey employees first to determine what they value. You might discover they care more about an extra paid day off than gift cards or the promise of a special team outing over cash drawings.

Influence: Anyone can initiate change through the power of influence if they naturally attract people with their special knowledge, unique experiences or inspirational characteristics. By simply introducing healthy attitudes and habits, influencers can change social norms that affect behavior and transform organizations. A good strategy to harness this power is to recruit recognized change agents in your organization as wellness champions. The ideal wellness team is comprised of champions from every level of management and across multiple departments. Powerful movements can begin with small acts taken by influencers like walking breaks, standing desk use, healthy lunches and regular expressions of gratitude.

If your work force is in need of healthier habits, consider the incredible opportunity you have to make a difference in lives and in your business by simply offering a gentle push. It’s not a matter of telling people what to do or how to live their lives. It’s a matter of generating the momentum we all need from time to time to soar higher and reach our healthiest potential.

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