It all began with my grandmother. Simply put, she was my light and a key source of inspiration.
For the last ten years of her life, she had cancer and a host of other health issues. As a result, she gained weight and became depressed.
Doctor after doctor told her that she needed to exercise. She wouldn’t do it, however, unless a family member or friend came around for a visit.
This situation is not unique to my now-late grandmother, or just for a specific subset of the population.
Medical professionals across the country say behavioral change is a challenge for most of their patients. Despite advances in technology and medicine, Deloitte estimates seven out of ten Americans are expected to die from chronic disease--many of those conditions could be treated or prevented with behavior changes. The challenge of impacting change isn’t limited to healthcare; HR professionals, insurers, and even employers are saying that encouraging people to adopt healthier habits is a constant challenge.
It’s not (usually) because of a lack of knowledge or desire that we choose habits that hinder our wellness. After all, none of us want to live shorter lives or spend extended time in hospitals. So the question becomes, how can we leverage what we know about human behavior to get people to participate in the wellness programming they so desperately need?
Answering this question, and inspired by our grandmothers, my co-CEO, Mike Kott, and I started BurnAlong in 2016. We drew from our shared experience with work and family to develop a wellness company that today supports employers, hospitals, municipalities, and individuals of all ages, backgrounds, and needs. We meet them wherever they are in life’s journey with diverse, inclusive programming to positively influence change in people’s lives.
With COVID-19 upending all of our lives, habits, and behaviors - and leading many employers to rethink their futures with a remote or hybrid workplace - we need to evolve our approaches to meet employee needs and support their wellness journeys.
Employers need to think through how they can provide more than benefits and encourage healthy behavioral changes so their teams can be their best selves, wherever they are working from. But how do you get there? Here are four key lessons I have discovered from my time working in counter-terrorism, the United Nations, journalism, consultancies, and within the health and wellness space that can initiate change within your workforce and provide the support they are actively seeking.
Lesson 1: Commit to programming that is relatable and diverse.
To change behavior, meet someone where they are in their wellness journey with holistic offerings. As the former President and Global Head of HR at IKEA, Pernille Spiers-Lopez shared with our team early on: The challenge leaders are focused on is not how you get a 22-year-old with a six-pack to exercise more, it is how to get the rest of the population—with varying needs, abilities, and experience—to pursue healthy habits.
If you want to incite change, offer programming that is relatable so your employees can see themselves represented. This means ensuring you evaluate your programs with a DEI lens and reflect the values of your workforce in your wellness offerings.
In addition, provide diverse programming as many employees are looking for more than just fitness classes. Through 2020, 20 percent of classes taken through the BurnAlong platform and app were within the specialty and emotional support categories; there has been a steady increase in demand with nearly 30% of those classes taken in 2021. This is a powerful reminder that employees are looking for input on chronic conditions, nutrition, parenting techniques, becoming more mindful, and much more outside of fitness on their individual wellness journeys.
By providing unique, personalized strategies to address wellness concerns, you are better able to impact behavioral change. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to health. So provide diverse options to increase broader engagement and equitable opportunities for everyone to connect. As an employer or HR professional, make sure everyone, regardless of ability, race, locality, age, family status, and gender are covered and represented.
Lesson 2: Include family and community.
Conformity, or social pressure, is a primary driver of social change—people conform to belong, impress, and be accepted. It is in our very nature to be influenced by our surrounding circumstances and social circles. I have seen social influence dramatically impact behavior; such influence becomes supercharged when coupled with influence coming from your innermost social circles.
There is a fascinating study by the Department of Kinesiology at Indiana University on couples who joined a gym. For those who joined and exercised together, they saw only a six percent drop out rate. However, if that same couple who joined the gym exercised alone, the drop out rate jumped to 43 percent. A 2015 JAMA Internal Medicine study also found that people are 67 percent more likely to succeed in making a healthy lifestyle change if a spouse or partner makes the same change.
To set up employees for success, and impact their behavior, include families and social circles in your programming. You can do this by working with solutions that allow for invitations to be sent to family and friends to join them in a class. In addition, you might consider corporate or team challenges that celebrate partners, kids, and roommate’s efforts in the final results.
Lesson 3: A person’s mindset matters.
It has been said that “The effect you expect is the effect you get.” By shifting perspectives and perceptions, it will lead to behavioral change.
Alia Crum, head of Mind and Body Lab at Stanford University, studied female hotel housekeepers, who told her that they felt they completed little or no daily exercise. This was surprising as housekeeping is strenuous work, burning more than 300 calories per hour.
To study this, Crum made two posters: one to stress the importance of exercise and one that tied the importance of exercise to their work. The results were fascinating. The group of housekeepers that viewed the latter poster, expanding their perception of what exercise was, lost weight, and had lower blood pressure.
Our mindset dramatically impacts our behavior. Work on shifting perceptions and understandings to impact your employees’ mindsets and you will start to see changes in their habits and actions.
For instance, build in established wellness breaks throughout the day but encourage your team to contextualize them to their lifestyle. It might mean reading a book with their kid, sitting outside for a few moments with no distractions, taking a quick class on financial health, or simply standing up to stretch. Those are all investments in their overall wellness that impact their overall health, engagement, and resiliency. Small wins add up.
Lesson 4: Try habit stacking.
Finally, to positively impact behavior, change up routines. One effective way to do this is called “habit stacking,” which authors like BJ Hogg and James Clear write about. Habit stacking naturally encourages implementation of new customs and essentially means you combine habits. For instance, after a current habit, like making your morning coffee, you add a new habit, like meditating for one-minute. Thus your established action triggers the next, new habit you are trying to form without requiring as much willpower as otherwise.
In 2001, researchers in Great Britain, as reported in the May 2002 British Journal of Health Psychology, worked with 248 people to build better exercise habits for two weeks.
● Group 1 was asked to track how often they exercised
● Group 2 was asked to track exercise and read materials on the benefits of exercise
● Group 3 was asked to track their exercise, read up on the benefits of working out, and formulate a plan for when/where to exercise
At the end of the two weeks, 35-38 percent of participants in Groups 1 and 2 exercised at least one time per week. Group 3, however, saw a huge difference where 91 percent of the participants exercised at least once a week!
This effect is known as “implementation intention” because it couples intention with a plan. To make that plan even more effective, it is recommended to habit stack so the new habit is easily ingrained in your life and your many small wins of implementing it begin to add up. Help your employees change their behavior by setting manageable goals and plans to reach those goals. Don’t stop there— offer experiences that celebrate their progress and are relevant to their goals. This can help reinforce changed behavior and positively impact their overall health.
Now back to my grandmother, where this all began. We saw that a doctor simply telling her she needed to change her behavior wasn’t enough. Much more was needed, from social support to the right relatable programming.
While much ahead is unknown, we do know that the future is going to be different to the pre-COVID world we left behind. Whether it’s fully remote or hybrid, there is consensus that where workers are able, they’ll be given more flexibility. With that flexibility comes the greater challenge of how to impact behavior.
Pre-COVID this was a challenge. 80% of the population doesn’t get the recommended levels of exercise. 40% of adults are obese. 11% of adults reported an anxiety or depressive disorder. Covid only worsened an already bad situation, and increased the social isolation people are challenged with.
Now more than ever it’s critical for companies to do more than offer a simple wellness program: ensure programming is relatable and diverse; include families and communities in the wellness journey; work to shift mindsets; and help your employees grow with habit stacking. It needs to be individualized: The desired experience, and ultimate success, of each employee will vary greatly so provide frameworks that allow them to grow and pursue their best selves with your support.
By investing in your workforce, you can expect to see more engagement, improved motivation, and connected teams that attract talent. Investing in wellness is a rising tide that lifts all boats. So, how will you impact change for your teams?