Harnessing the science of behaviour to improve employee wellbeing.

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Harnessing the science of behaviour to improve employee wellbeing.

A growing number of progressive companies are leveraging behavioural science insights to support employees’ wellbeing. Used effectively, they can lead to improved uptake of benefits, and sustained engagement.

In addition to effecting changes in workforce lifestyles, motivation and engagement, behavioural science can also inform a change in the way benefits are developed and presented to employees.

Here, we look at how the discipline can be used to improve the employee wellbeing experience.

What is behavioural science?

In general terms, behavioural science is an analysis of human behaviour. It can be used to elicit why individuals make certain choices – including decisions that may be contrary to their best interests.

The current economic climate means that, now more than ever, businesses can ill-afford to spend thousands on benefits programmes that are met with employee indifference.

Using behavioural science allows organisations to gain a greater understanding of employees’ decisions, impulses and habit formation, and allows them to offer benefits in the most appealing and effective way.

An incremental approach

Too much, too soon means desired behavioural change is unlikely to be successful. Expecting employees to transform their long-established feelings about, and responses to, mental health, physical exercise and financial management concurrently is unrealistic – it will invariably prove too overwhelming.

Instead, organisations should adopt a more measured approach and take a longer-term view.

A benefits strategy that prioritises certain elements of wellbeing at a time can see them better absorbed by employees and reduce the risk of disengagement.

To increase its effectiveness, it should be monitored and reviewed and, where necessary, evolve according to employees’ responses.

Appeal to emotions

Motivation has a significant role in behaviour formation, and is strongly determined by an individual’s core values, beliefs and needs.

As part of their behavioural change strategies, employers should therefore ‘plug-in’ to the emotions that drive employees, when presenting benefits.

Managers trained in coaching skills can better help employees to develop emotional insight and identify goals. By framing these desired outcomes in an emotional context, they become something that the employee needs, rather than a ‘nice-to-have’.

For example, a benefit that offers financial education will become more desirable if the employee is able to view it as a route to providing a suitable home, and security, for their family.

Similarly, health benefits such as DNA lifestyle screenings may have more appeal if an individual thinks of them as a way of optimising their performance in a favourite sport. Physiotherapy benefits could also appeal to a demographic that engages in regular physical activities.

Behavioural scientists have found that individuals have a deeper emotional response to losing something they already have, rather than having to do something to be rewarded.

Awareness of this could change the way organisations position rewards in wellbeing programmes and may require a reversal in existing practices. For example, it may prove more effective to automatically allow each employee a day off each month, so long as they engage in onsite meditation classes, or attend a financial wellbeing presentation.

Flex platforms, such as HEKA ,operate on a similar principle. Employees can receive a monthly allowance to spend on health and wellbeing benefits – a customised approach can generate greater engagement.

Human nature usually means mental investment in the “new” diminishes as the novelty begins to wear off. This can be a challenge in relation to benefits and rewards, and is a reason why organisations should strive to ensure benefit and reward provision remains fresh and innovative.

Again, HEKA and similar platforms help secure this by offering a wide array of benefits and services.

Without motivation, change is difficult to effect. It requires a high degree of willpower, which can be difficult to initiate and sustain.

One way of circumventing the reliance on willpower is to remove the need for it. For example, a canteen menu that only offers low-fat nutritious food will result in greater, and more rapid, health gains for employees than one that offers processed food with a high sugar content.

Similarly, a company-wide ban on after hours working is likely to see reduced instances of employee burnout.

Use a frame that fits

Behaviour is influenced by the way information is framed. A health benefit designed to improve employee nutrition, for instance, may have greater uptake if it was presented as having an 80 per cent success rate, rather than a 20 per cent failure rate.

By commissioning specialists to interview employees and gauge their responses to hypothetical situations, employers can establish whether an individual would respond better to a loss frame (where the losses or costs are highlighted), or to a gain frame (where the focus is on gains or benefits).

With a mental health wellbeing strategy, companies could appeal to an employee’s motivational triggers by presenting benefits through focusing on the risks of ignoring mental health, or, by highlighting the wellbeing gains.

Develop confidence through education

Confidence is needed to make behavioural change possible. Many associate change with uncertainty, which can then usher in feelings of insecurity, culminating in resistance.

Improving an employee’s understanding can help reduce anxieties. Knowledge is indeed power, and greater awareness gives the individual greater agency.

Webinars, presentations, workshops, one-to-one talking sessions and wearable tech can be used to explain and demonstrate why and how an employee needs to improve their physical health.

To be effective, however, and to prevent information overload and disengagement, these need to be tailored to individual requirements. Personal relevance should be highlighted, and employees must be able to easily identify and navigate their way to the appropriate resource. Improved health literacy means the employee is then equipped – and more willing – to commit to change.

Encourage a collective approach

Changing behaviour so that newly-learned habits become the norm can be easier if undertaken collectively.

Workplace social groups, including social media networking, are a powerful resource and positive peer pressure can be used to boost determination.

A strategy to support mental health, for instance, could benefit considerably from employees being trained to share concerns and talk with trusted colleagues.

Likewise, a physical fitness strategy could involve team sports, competitions or departmental sponsored events.

Implant expertise

Appointing coaches, or training workforce champions, can help employees make behavioural changes.

Questions, such as “What barriers prevent you from achieving that aim?”, “What support do you need?” or “What steps could you take to improve a work/life balance” can encourage employees to analyse their needs and identify solutions.

They will feel empowered to make decisions for themselves and, because wellbeing action ideas have come from the individual, commitment is more likely to be sustained.


Effective communication is vital for business success. Regular feedback to – and from – employees shows they are valued, appreciated and respected.

Virtual focus groups and wellbeing pulse surveys can often be effective ways in eliciting the priorities of different groups within a workforce.

For employees concerned that feedback brings the risk of criticism or conflict, appropriate training on giving and receiving feedback effectively could be offered.

Organisations should strive to communicate the availability and efficacy of wellbeing benefits. Different demographics have different preferences for the way they receive information, so disseminate through a range of channels, such as emails, posters and presentations.

Research has shown that where companies offer such benefits as dental insurance, workplace mindfulness sessions and health cash plans, there have been positive impacts on oral health, a lowering of stress and an increase in healthcare visits.

Employee appetite is clearly there, and companies need to capitalize on it.

Using data to navigate the challenges

Implementing strategies that use behavioural science to improve wellbeing is not without challenges.

Before interventions can be decided, it is important that management is acutely aware of any wellbeing risks and trends. Behavioural science consultants can collect data and use employee surveys, anecdotal evidence and management reports to help identify the psychological needs of employees, and give insight into the psychological barriers to behavioural change.

This will inform wellbeing priorities and shape appropriate interventions, which consultants can then analyse and evaluate with the employees, making adaptations where needed.

Another challenge is to ensure interventions are sustainable, scalable and can be integrated into wider organisational strategy.

For interventions to have value, they must be evaluated and adapted as needed, which means monitoring and data collection must be thorough and consistent.

Reap the rewards

Greater job satisfaction, better physical and mental health, increased engagement and productivity are among the gains for employees (and employers) when behavioural science is harnessed to improve wellbeing.

From a management perspective, this translates into lower rates of absenteeism and turnover, increased employee retention and loyalty, and a more positive corporate culture.