How to motivate staff to improve their own health


The old adage ‘prevention is better than cure’ is gaining traction in the world of worker wellbeing.  

How to motivate staff to improve their own health

With growing concern around the burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cardiovascular disease, mental illness, cancer, respiratory disease, and obesity and diabetes, on the future workforce, emphasis is now on proactive, rather than reactive, healthcare.

Businesses are acutely aware of the importance of this approach, with 65 per cent of companies saying that identifying and actively managing health risks and chronic conditions was a key priority over the next three years – Willis Towers Watson’s Benefits Trends Survey (2017). 

There several techniques and methods that can be deployed to promote preventative health, but integral to the success of these is employees’ commitment to making positive behavioural changes.  It is, after all, an investment in their future. It is also dependent upon trust being established between employer and employee. But this is no easy feat. 

Here, we look at how companies can overcome these hurdles and motivate staff to improve their own health.

Human-centric health

Human-centric health leverages the precepts of behavioural economics to drive prevention and better treatment of NCDs, which represent one of the 21st century’s most significant burdens on productivity.

But in order for this concept to work, individuals must take affirmative control of their own wellbeing, rather than being passive recipients of care.

Behavioural economics teaches us that humans don’t always make the best decisions. They often fail to adopt healthy behaviours, despite understanding the importance of their personal health. In other words, they are optimistic about the future, so they don’t always take precautions to forestall future hazards.

Employers can help influence positive behavioural changes by creating an environment that makes it easier for employees to make healthier decisions. Technology can assist in this task by offering easy access to the critical health-related knowledge needed to shape lifestyle choices, removing the traditional barriers to help. 

There is a growing trend towards online coaching around health and wellbeing, which offers employees the opportunity to access guidance and training at their convenience – and in private.

Wearables supports preventative health as they place emphasis on leading healthier lives now, in preparation for the future. It can also be used to tap into the competitive nature of employees, encouraging participation through gamification.

The data resulting from such technology can subsequently help companies make smarter decisions pertaining to benefits provision and help to establish a wider picture of employee health.  

Mental health

Managing mental health is top of the health agenda for many companies, with stress the number one health-related issue faced by UK employers today. 

One major issue when it comes to managing mental health is the scepticism that still exists around it in the workplace. 

Despite 42 per cent of workers admitting that they suffered from stress or mental health problems, 20 per cent of employees harbour scepticism towards people who take time off due to mental health issues, according to Willis Towers Watson Health and Benefits Barometer(2017).

Furthermore, nearly one-fifth (19 per cent) of employees don’t believe stress is a genuine mental health issue and the same number believe a colleague who has previously suffered from mental health issues would be less able to fulfil their job role properly. 

This makes it difficult for employees to be honest and seek help when they are struggling emotionally or mentally, significantly limiting the opportunities for early intervention.   

Raising awareness of mental health by regularly adding the topic to the agenda in one-to-ones and team meetings can encourage conversations, enhance greater understanding among colleagues, help to build internal support networks and increase resilience.   

Bringing the topic out in the open breaks down barriers and removes any fear that may exist inhibiting staff from admitting that a problem exists and from asking for assistance.

Employers are taking the step of training some staff as mental health first-aiders. These individuals can be taught to spot signs of colleagues struggling and how intervene when a problem is observed.  This can be supported by self-guided resilience training, such as meditation training, which gives employees the tools they need to cope with everyday stresses and worries. 

Building trust

One of the challenges to engagement is mistrust. 

Fifty-eight per cent of respondents to Willis Towers Watson’s Global Benefits Attitudes Survey (GBAS) (2017) said they don’t want their employer to have access to their personal health information, and just 21 per cent of employees said employers should send personalised messages relating to their health.

Data is important for identifying health risks and consistent messaging is important for keeping motivation levels up, but companies should be transparent and respectful of boundaries.

Employees should be reassured that their health-related data will remain private and secure, and offer access to apps that send relevant, tailored messages to encourage a healthy lifestyle, without any direct involvement from the employer.

Technology should be treated as a tool to empower and educate employees on how to manage their own health – this will be what ultimately leads to behavioural modifications and the adoption of healthy behaviours.

Worryingly though, companies are increasingly looking to financial incentives as a way of motivating employees.

GBAS found that, over the next three years, 33 per cent of organisations believe their strategy for encouraging healthy behaviours, such as smoking cessation, weight management or increasing exercise levels, will focus primarily on direct financial incentives, an increase from 12 per cent currently.

It is understandable that companies – particularly those who are frustrated at a lack of engagement – are tempted to offer financial incentives to their employees. But taking care of health and worker wellbeing should be a shared priority of both employee and employer, not seen as additional workload that workers should be compensated for. 

Companies may experience an initial upsurge in engagement, but experience shows that this can be short-lived as people get used to them over time and they lose their behavioural influence.  Employers need to plan for this by attracting employees’ attention and keeping them motivated.

Having an effective strategy, that taps into the issues that really matter to employees, is the best – and organic – way of gaining and maintaining engagement.

The author is Mike Blake, wellbeing lead at Willis Towers Watson.

This article was provided by Willis Towers Watson.


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