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14 Oct 2022

How to find the balance between encouraging and forcing people to partake in physical wellbeing initiatives

Healthier, happier people do a better job. But getting them to change their lifestyle habits can be challenging

Let’s get physical: how to encourage employees to get fit.jpg 1


People are one of most businesses’ biggest investments. So, it makes sense to do everything you can to ensure they’re in the best shape possible.

High levels of physical health have been shown to increase concentration and mental stamina, improve creativity, and reduce stress.

Healthier employees also take far fewer days off sick, boosting productivity across the board.

Put simply, healthier, happier people do a better job, just as a well-oiled machine will outperform one that isn’t regularly maintained.

But convincing employees to look after their physical health is a lot more complex than simply booking in a service for a machine.

Forcing people to do anything tends to generate negative sentiment. And nobody wants their boss telling them what to do outside their working hours.

But there are ways to achieve better physical health and wellbeing levels without alienating your workforce.

Here are some pointers for organisations keen to find the right balance.

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1. Understand the decision-making process

When it comes to health, we often push back against even our own attempts to control and combat negative behaviours. So it is no surprise that adopting an overly heavy-handed approach to physical wellbeing can propel people in the opposite direction, even if they see the value of the underlying initiative.

Paul Davies, consulting psychologist at Behaviour Consulting, says that changing behaviour starts with accepting the reality of how we make decisions.

“Our own physical wellbeing can be somewhat of a paradox,” he says.  “We all want to be healthy, but how often do we ignore the rational voice in our heads and end up doing the opposite?

“Binge watching the latest tv show is more immediately rewarding than heading out the door for a run. But beating ourselves up about our paradoxical behaviour isn’t going to help. Once we accept this is normal, we can put things in place to support making more positive choices.”

2. Start small

One of the most successful approaches to long-term change is to start small and focus on ways to make negative behaviours less attractive.

For example, run a simple message campaign targeting one action, such as avoiding buying fizzy drinks during the weekly shop: 'Be strong and resist the sugary soda. You’ll thank yourself later. #shopstrong'

“By changing the environment in which people make their decision, it increases the physical effort to perform the unhealthy behaviour,” Davies says.

“In this instance, having to leave the house if you want a fizzy hit dramatically decreases the likelihood of you impulsively quaffing gallons of pop.”

3. Keep it simple

Simplicity is also key when it comes to how you get the message across.

Employees assistance programmes, gym membership schemes and PMI programmes are all effective ways to support health and wellbeing.

But without a consolidated communications strategy, they can also cloud the issue – especially if employees feel they are being bombarded with messages about improving their physical health.

Using a reward hub can help, and senior management participation is also crucial to engagement it shows employees the benefits of such initiatives are sincerely recognised across the board.

4. Make it fun

As with most things in life, encouraging people to look after their physical health is about the sell; you need to get people to buy into your physical health and wellbeing programme. Gamification is one way to do this.

The badges earned in apps such as Garmin’s Connect fitness community are proven to help drive behavioural changes.

Businesses can emulate this by organising group-wide initiatives such as step challenges that use informal, low-level competition to boost participation levels by celebrating the winners, recognising everyone who takes part and avoiding exposing those at the back of the pack.

“While gamification should always be more than merely adding points, badges and leader boards to a project, the principle is sound,” Davies adds.

“Rewarding positive behaviour is more effective than punishing negative behaviour and incentives don’t have to be tangible.

“When physical wellbeing initiatives work well, they help people with small interventions that offer quick rewards, allowing them to build on this momentum and increase the effort of the behaviour over time.”

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