Using the power of behavioral science to jump start your corporate wellness program

Last week we spoke of the basic requirements for a wellness program to be successful. For the foundational information, click here.  Today we’ll expand on the factors that will lead to more success for your program. These components have been developed based on years of behavioral research and organizational behavior management applications in a variety of settings. The steps build on one another; it is not meant to be a la carte. Skipping any step will greatly reduce the success of your program and believe me, I have seen organizations try all sorts of combinations of this. It works the way it works when done exactly this way – no cheating!  So here is a basic explanation.  Also, if you are struggling or frustrated, don’t be! This is what we do and we’ve studied this for over a decade. It’s not intuitive and it’s not easy – we are here to help if you are serious about implementing this. So with no further ado, here are the critical steps for wellness success.

1)    Top down support
What this means is that your program must be important to the top leaders in your company, including and not excepting, the CEO, management team and supervisors. They need to buy in to the program, believe it has benefit and promote it. They should be enthusiastic supporters. Your managers should all be at every kick off meeting, they should talk about it daily and they should not communicate skepticism or irritation with the program. This may require additional coaching before the launch; if this is the case in your organization do it. If people on your management team don’t believe in your program, find out why and make sure their doubts are addressed before the launch. We want commitment, not just compliance so a fair exchange of ideas is more effective than a corporate mandate.

2)    Specific identification of outcomes, achievements and behaviors
This critical step is done on multiple levels.  First, you need to identify this for your program, and then you need to coach your leaders to coach your participants to develop this for themselves.  An outcome is the overall objective of your program. It’s your ‘WHY’ to borrow the term from Simon Sinek.  What do you want to accomplish from your program? This is how you will measure your success and it is your true motivation.  Corporately, you may want to reduce health issues related to obesity, reduce medical renewal rates, achieve a premium discount, be voted healthiest workplace.  Your achievements are your trackable milestones. Reduce body fat % by 5% on average across your company.  Improve blood pressure to normal ranges across the company, etc. The behaviors are the things that get you there. For example, for each person to engage in a combination of cardio and strength training 4 times a week, smoking cessation, reduction of consumption of sugar…you get the idea. This needs to be done on a corporate level and it also needs to be done on an individual level. Please don’t skimp on this step, as it will help shore up people’s internal motivation which will make your job much easier. If people can get connected to their ‘WHY’ and get excited about it, they will be more likely to keep going.

3)    Feedback
Feedback alone can increase desired behaviors 15%. Public, individualized, neutral, frequent feedback is amazingly powerful. Your goal is not to shame people, so my suggestion is to give every participant a code number and then post weekly public charts on their progress…AND make sure their supervisor or team captain reviews it with them!! You can also post team results, which is good too, but remember the outcome is to change individual behavior.

4)    Frequent, consistent reinforcement
Nearly one hundred years of research into behavior change has told us a lot about how to best deliver reinforcement to change behavior. Small, consistent, contingent reinforcement is best. If you have $1000 to spend on your program, you are better to give people $10 every week they perform their wellness behaviors, than giving it all to one person at the end of a year.

5)    Random, intermittent reinforcement
Think slot machines. You have to put your money in to play, but you don’t get a reward every time. Knowing you might some time is the most powerful way to reinforce behavior. One practical application of this is if you were to randomly give a fairly substantial prize to folks along the way for engaging in the desired behaviors. If people need to work out 5 times a week and report the results, you could give $100 every so often to someone who did the workouts and the reporting.

6)    High volume communication
Communicate twice as much as you think you should. This should be on everyone’s lips and minds. Posters in the breakroom, company emails, if you have meetings, incorporate the wellness into every meeting. Do not shut up about your program! Follow up with captains and participants multiple times a week. Ask people how they’re doing. Publically celebrate successes.  You get the idea.

7)    Don’t engage in unhealthy behaviors
If you’re in the middle of a wellness program, do not buy pizza for the office, do not stock vending machines with soda and candy and do not have dessert potlucks. You can still have events, but make them healthy events, and define your parameters.

8)    Random Unpredictable Cross Checks
Remember, the result you are looking for is a change of behavior, not a change in reporting. Help people avoid the temptation to misreport by introducing random unpredictable cross checks before your program starts. Let people know you will be checking gym attendance on a random basis. This admittedly is very difficult with fitness because you don’t have a true way to verify people’s eating and not everyone works out in a gym but whatever you can do will be helpful. One version of this is fitness tests throughout the program. If people are working out every day, their fitness should be improving. If it’s not, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are misreporting –but at the least it will indicate that changes are needed.

So that’s it – a distillation of years of study and research. Hopefully this helps you in your program but if it leaves you with more questions, please reach out. This is what we do, and we can help you!

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