Transforming Wellness Behaviors: The Buzz on Employee Engagement


You know that moment when your favorite sports team came alive and, even though they were down in points, you just knew they were going to win? Or when your favorite band started to get popular? Whether we think it is dumb luck, magic, or something else, we can’t help but want to recreate that turning point in our everyday lives.

Most of what drives behaviors is subconscious.

To understand turning or tipping points, it may be best to think like marketers, who have discovered how important habits are in our decision-making. Just as consumers need to break old habits when they change from one product to another, our employees need to change their bad habits and be prepared to act appropriately. Trying something just once is not a success, they need to be able to maintain.

Note that just asking employees what they want may not help as they may not be able to verbalize it. Most of what is driving behaviors is subconscious.

What Drives Behavior?

There are several models that can help us to conceptualize what drives behavior. The Fogg Model recognizes two domains: motivation and ability that drive behavior. The Engaging Leader Behavior Model, based on the work of David Maxfield, expands on this model by dividing these domains to the personal, social and structural sources.

This expanded 2 x 3 model (motivation and ability x personal, social and structural sources) recognizes that we are not just looking at the employee but also the social influences and the structural (what is available to them from the workplace like the medical plan, EAP, wellness program etc.). Thinking of behavior in this way allows us to focus tactics in each of the six areas of the model and perform a gap analysis to see where we could improve our approach.

Getting Attention for the Change

These theories are a great way to think about and promote behavior change, but how do you create that initial buzz for the program?

The call for change must be unarguable and unforgettable

Tipping Point Leadership theory says that the call for change must be unarguable and unforgettable. Bob Sutton, in his book Scaling Up Excellence, takes this one step further recommending that leaders create emotional arousal around a concept. To do this we should focus on quality, rather than focus on how many individuals are participating, we should:

  1. spread the mindset
  2. take time to get it right
  3. train and retrain
  4. understand what the obstacles are
  5. get those obstacles out of the way

To do this we can use social networks – understand who are the influencers and find out if they will support you and how. The concept of using champions fits well here. These individuals are the advocates that help to spread the word.

Don’t spread your message too thin – move from one social network to the next; you don’t have to do it all at once.

Finally, use storytelling to get the messages across, and connect with your audience. Personalize, using real people, branding and company values that are epitomized in the culture so employees will identify with the message.

Keep Employees Fully Charged

Understand who are the influencers among your employees and find out if they will support you and how.

Not to overstate the obvious, but energized employees are more engaged, which makes it important to consider their fuel levels.

Tom Rath has spent his career researching what keeps employees charged. According to him, the three key areas that you should focus on for this are interactions, energy and meaning. If on a daily basis you can limit your negative interactions with others, put your energy first (eg. sleep, eat, exercise) and do something that shows meaningful progress you can be more fully charged.

Big Data?

Speaking of buzz, big data seems to be the trend in engagement, particularly as it relates to healthcare. Can big data be used to predict engagement trends? The music industry has been using it to predict what songs/artists will make it big. We also use it for weather forecasting and a host of other natural phenomenon (e.g. spreading of germs/diseases). If you can get your hands on enough data it may behoove you run the analytics to supplement your fact finding.

So while we may not be able to predict the level of engagement of our employees, through behavioral theories—supplemented with big data—we can have a better idea of what approaches may work best. We can make it easy for our employees with the social and physical environment we create, charge them up and train them so they will want to engage.

Then through individuals and social networks we can drive lasting trends while continually gathering data and breaking down barriers to engagement.

One final note here is that people tend to gravitate to social networks with similar behaviors, so that can be a significant barrier when trying to change those behaviors. For example obese individuals are more likely to spend time with other overweight folks; smokers will find other smokers, etc. These may be the toughest groups to change if you are trying to improve health, but the more we analyze peer effects on social networks, spreading phenomenon and the like the better armed we are to tackle complex problems.

Nicholas Christakis a social scientist and physician directs the Human Nature Lab at Yale University and has done a significant amount of research in this space.

About Brian Donnelly

Brian Donnelly is a Vice President of Willis Towers Watson's Human Capital Practice located in Chicago, where he ap…
Categories: Employee Engagement, Employee Wellbeing | Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *