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15 Feb 2021
by Gethin Nadin

Can behavioural science help us to improve employee wellbeing?

My fascination with why people do and don't do things is what began my career in psychology. As I moved into workplace wellbeing, I became engrossed by the idea that, from a young age, we are taught to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, drink eight glasses of water, exercise for fifteen minutes etc. Yet this well-known guidance appears to fail in getting us to live healthier lifestyles. The pull of our upbringing, our bias for the present and social pressures are all too strong.

 

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One of the biggest hurdles to building successful workplace wellbeing strategies is that employees face increasingly complex challenges that stem from various causes, ranging from psychological and biological, to social. But evidence shows that modifiable health behaviours contribute to around 40% of deaths. Research has found an inverse relationship between the risk of all-cause mortality and the number of healthy lifestyle behaviours a patient follows. That is to say that a large portion of our poor health behaviours can be changed to create better outcomes. We just need to think about workplace wellbeing in a different way.

Part of the reason why health behaviour change is so difficult for many employees is that the factors needed to adapt behaviour aren’t always aligned. Generally speaking, we need the skills to better perform a behaviour, a strong intention to change, and the removal of any environmental constraints.

Barriers to improved wellbeing

When we look at behavioural science, there are a number of obvious and relatively straightforward ways organisations can use this insight to help to support their people (based on those designed by Abraham, Kelly, West and Michie, 2009):

  • improve knowledge about the consequences of employee behaviour (or lack of change)
  • personal relevance – drawing attention to how that change will benefit the individual and their specific needs/desires
  • a more positive attitude to wellbeing and the removal of stigmas
  • improving self-efficacy – increasing an employee’s belief that they can change their behaviours.

Broadly speaking, the social sciences refer to the above as three high level influences on behaviour – Capability, Opportunity and Motivation Behaviour model (COM-B). When we understand what these factors are, we can better design wellbeing strategies that focus on real behaviour change.

Characterising and designing health behaviour change

When we reflect on poor wellbeing habits like overspending or eating a poor diet, what we are usually trying to do is change an employee’s emotional connection with something (which is usually entrenched in their upbringing, societal influence and prior wellbeing experience).

When designing wellbeing behaviour change interventions, there are broadly nine common interventions that we know from extensive research and practice that help people to change their health behaviours; education, persuasion, incentivisation, coercion, training, restriction, environmental restructuring, modelling and enablement. If we take one area of wellbeing like financial wellbeing (the area that is of most concern to employees in 2021), we can start to understand how we, as employers, can facilitate behaviour change:

  1. Improving the knowledge of financial matters and products, and giving employees the skills to calculate interest and compare lending, for example.
  2. Changing the usually negative emotions and associations we have with money.
  3. Informing employees of the consequences of inaction/lack of change.
  4. Changing the context of money and the impact on the individual – it becomes a tool to achieve our desires in life, rather than something to be afraid of. Saving becomes a life goal, rather than a pile of money.
  5. Modelling through leadership is how we give our people the permission to talk about their financial wellbeing and admit when there is a problem.
  6. Offering the tools employees need to support the behaviour change in the long-term (savings vehicles, retirement options, budgeting tools etc).

Motivation and confidence

An employee’s motivation to make a behaviour change and the confidence they have to do it are interlinked. For many health behaviour changes, a person needs to build the confidence to make a change. In many cases, this is done by improving their knowledge and awareness of poor habits, products, interventions etc.

There is compelling evidence that shows limited health and financial literacy can lead to adverse health outcomes. Research estimates that around half of all adults struggle with health literacy, and around 87% say they need help with health-related information. The evidence is clear that when employees improve their ability to understand health and financial matters, this impacts health behaviour. Higher financial literacy leads to fewer financial concerns. Higher health literacy leads to being more physically active and having a better diet.

Employee benefits and wellbeing

In 2020, I saw – en-masse – employees and employers turn to their benefit schemes for wellbeing support. Traditionally, the place where most wellbeing is delivered might also be the place where we can help employees to form much better wellbeing habits. For example, just having dental insurance has been shown to positively impact oral health. Some research has found that workplace mindfulness can prevent burnout and lower stress, and health cash plans increase healthcare visits.

This is where employers can have a big impact – by improving knowledge of and availability of wellbeing benefits. More than half of employees now say they want their employee benefits to help them manage their wellbeing, according to Drewberry’s 2021 Employee Benefits Survey.

Behaviour change and retirement planning

For context, if we look at one behaviour change an employer might want to encourage – like increasing retirement provision – we can see how this understanding of behaviour can help.

Although pension scheme membership has been growing in the UK, the average level of savings is falling. So, while the retirement savings message appears to be getting through, awareness of how much will be needed, and the options available, are not. This is partly due to the prevailing idea that “because I’ve been auto-enrolled, my employer is paying in and that’s enough”. We can also see that a bias towards spending on “the things I want and need today” is overshadowing our retirement planning. And lastly, we are put off by the negativity and perceived complexity of pensions. So, with all this in mind, we begin to understand some of the barriers to improving this specific wellbeing challenge. So how do employers encourage their people to improve their retirement savings?

Improving employee knowledge of pensions in such a way that people see and understand the incentives has been shown to improve retirement planning. A combination of our own contributions, tax relief, investment growth, pension credits etc. show us the much wider impact of each £1 saved into a pension. Illustrating this payback can begin to incentivise saving and lessen the feeling of ‘giving up’ money today. Showing employees how much they will make and how much they need significantly increases engagement in pensions, according to research by the Cabinet Office and its Behavioural Insights team.

Through the communications, imagery and language we use, we can also begin to make retirement savings vivid and exciting, and change the context of what retirement means to employees.

The Retirement Living Standards offer people the education and awareness to see retirement in three simple ways – minimum, moderate and comfortable, thereby illustrating the kind of lifestyle varying levels of income will offer. This way, employees stop seeing numbers they can’t grasp, and instead visualise a lifestyle with specific details around their ability to do certain things like eat out and go on holiday while retired. This frames pensions as more about the kind of life you what to lead as you get older, rather than how much money you have. It changes the context of a pension.

This same thinking can be applied to any wellbeing benefit you offer. When you begin to think about how you position benefits under those three influences on behaviour – Capability, Opportunity and Motivation Behaviour (COM-B) – you start to consider what you expect an employee to change as a result of being offered certain employee benefits.

Here are my three tips to enhance your wellbeing strategy through employee benefits:

1. Focus on one behaviour change at a time with small, attainable goals

Showing your people they need to fix all these different health behaviours at once is too overwhelming. Behaviour change requires deliberation, action and maintenance. It’s difficult for staff to focus on physical exercise, mental health and clearing debt all at once. So, design a wellbeing/benefits strategy to focus on one area of wellbeing at a time throughout the year.

2. Identify the motivation

Our motivations are important predictors of our behaviour. Without a strong personal motivation, employees may never make the right changes. Our motivations are closely linked to our core beliefs as humans, so when we think about providing a safe place for us and our family, that goal to buy a first home becomes much more of a motivator than just ‘saving for the future’.

3. Knowledge is a key predictor of behaviour change

In almost every theory of health behaviour change I’ve read, knowledge is either a key predictor of, or a precursor to, change. How can you better educate employees on the paybacks of taking a certain benefit?

Understanding behavioural science can at first seem like a hazy route to take when focusing on employee experience. But in understanding the psychological, biological and social influences on behaviour – and the impact of employee behaviour on workplace culture and environment – you can take practical measures today that will help improve your employees’ wellbeing, and simultaneously improve benefits understanding and take-up.

The author is Gethin Nadin, Psychologist, Author, and Director, Employee Wellbeing at Benefex.

This article is provided by Benefex.

In partnership with Benefex

The home of award-winning employee benefits, reward, recognition, & communications.

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