In March I was given the opportunity to write an article for The Financial Technologist magazine, which is published by Harrington Starr – ‘Trusted advisors to the Worlds’ leaders in Financial Technology for over a decade’. I’m thrilled to be able to share it with you here.
The fintech industry understands the importance of employee wellbeing. More and more firms are investing in it. But is the money, time, and effort invested likely to pay off – for the employees and the businesses?
Only if it helps the employees to create better habits.
The long-term physical and mental wellbeing of your employees is largely determined by the habits they repeat every day. Better long-term wellbeing – which is surely the whole point of an employee wellbeing strategy – requires better habits.
More specifically, better habits in the areas that make the most difference to physical and mental wellbeing – nutrition, movement, and sleep.
Think about how you keep your teeth clean
Do you wait until the last day of the month, then launch into a ferocious two-hour brushing session?
No, of course you don’t. But have you ever thought about why?
Firstly, you’d never do it. Imagine arriving at month-end and being faced with two hours of non-stop tooth brushing. Even if you remembered, you wouldn’t have the time or the motivation. You’d come to dread it. You probably wouldn’t start, let alone finish.
Secondly, even if you did manage the 120-minute monthly brushing marathon, it wouldn’t be effective at keeping your teeth clean. Hacking away at a months’ worth of plaque build-up – the damage from which would already have been done – would be a futile exercise.
What you actually do (if you listen to your dentist) is brush for about two minutes twice a day. You still spend two hours brushing your teeth every month, but breaking it down into a twice-daily habit means it gets done (almost without fail) and it’s very effective. The long-term result? Clean, healthy teeth.
Success – in anything – is the aggregation of small daily habits, not a one-off or infrequent herculean effort.
Therefore, the best way – perhaps the only way – to improve the long-term wellbeing of your employees is to help them change their daily habits.
How to (and how not to) create lasting habit change
In his ground-breaking book, Tiny Habits: Why Starting Small Makes Lasting Change Easy, BJ Fogg (the Director of the Behaviour Design Lab at Stanford) highlights that, “there are only three things we can do that will create lasting change: have an epiphany, change our environment, or change our habits in tiny ways.”
Real epiphanies are very rare. We can’t bank on them for habit change, so we should forget about them.
Notice that information and motivation – the mainstays of most employee wellbeing initiatives – are not on this list. Why? Because they don’t reliably change habits.
Unfortunately, knowing what to do does not result in lasting habit change in most people. BJ Fogg calls this the ‘Information-Action Fallacy’. There is no shortage of good-quality, easy-to-find, free-of-charge health information out there, yet most people don’t do anything with it.
But what about motivation? Most people believe that motivation is the driving force of change. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. For any behaviour (including habits) to occur, three elements must come together at the same time: motivation, ability, and a prompt. So, motivation is necessary. And when motivation is high, you can do difficult things. The problem is, as I’m sure you have experienced, motivation is unpredictable and unreliable. It comes in waves, and it fluctuates wildly.
There are, then, only two (realistic) ways that your employees can create better daily habits:
- By taking the habits they want to do and putting them into practice one tiny step at a time, and/or
- By redesigning their environment to make their desired habits the path of least resistance.
To generate the biggest impact, your employee wellbeing strategy should be designed to help them do both.
The next question is, what habits should your employees focus on?
The 80/20 principle applied to employee wellbeing
There are many factors that contribute to the wellbeing of your employees, but there are three factors that make more difference than anything else: nutrition, movement, and sleep.
Four health systems are equally and jointly responsible for determining – in large part – how your employees feel and perform day in, day out:
- Metabolic health: How well your body processes, uses, and stores calories.
- Musculoskeletal health: How well your bones, joints, and soft tissues feel and move.
- Mental health: How well your mind feels and how well your brain performs.
- Immune health: How well your body fights infection and regulates inflammation.
These four systems exert an equally significant influence on the most important employee wellbeing outcomes: longevity, quality of life, work absence, and work performance. And each of these systems is reciprocally connected to the other three – they don’t operate independently, so we shouldn’t treat them as if they do.
Malfunctions in these systems – and they often malfunction together – are the biggest threats to the wellbeing of your employees and the performance of your organisation.
What causes these systems to malfunction? The main (modifiable) culprits are poor diet, physical inactivity, and insufficient sleep.
Nutrition, movement, and sleep are not just important to health and wellbeing, they are essential to life.
- The building blocks for every component and process in your body and brain, and the energy for fuelling them, come exclusively from your food.
- Varied and regular movement is the stimulus to build, maintain and improve every structure, system, process and pathway in your body and mind.
- Sleep is the state in which your physical body recovers and is repaired and rejuvenated, and your mental processes are regulated, rewired, and reset.
There is now overwhelming scientific evidence that poor diet, physical inactivity, and insufficient sleep are harmful to every aspect of metabolic, musculoskeletal, mental, and immune health. In terms of impact on wellbeing and performance, nothing else comes close.
In addition, nutrition, movement, and sleep are mutually connected, interdependent and synergistic. And, for most people, there is substantial room for improvement in all three areas.
To make your wellbeing strategy as efficient as possible – for your employees and your organisation – you should focus predominantly on helping your people to eat better, move better, and sleep better.
A cautionary (and heretical) note about goals and results
Goals (the results you want to achieve) are necessary for behaviour change, but not sufficient. And, if goals are the primary focus, you won’t get very far.
The problem is, a goal is an abstraction (and often one you think you should want, not one you actually want). You can’t achieve a goal immediately, no matter how motivated you are. It doesn’t give you anything to do. And only by doing can you get anywhere.
‘Get better sleep’ is a sensible health goal. And many people really want to sleep better. But that’s not enough. You can’t get ‘better sleep’ right now. To sleep better, you first need to break it down into the specific habits that will help get you there, and then put those habits into practice consistently.
Very few health and wellbeing programmes (not just employee wellbeing programmes) get this right. They typically attempt to motivate people towards goals, and it doesn’t work.
Another problem is tying success to results. Feeling successful is the single most important skill in behaviour change. But focusing on results makes applying this skill very difficult. One reason for this is that results don’t show up in a predictable way.
For example, two people who adopt the same healthy diet and exercise protocol will respond in different ways at different times. So, it makes no sense to tie success to an arbitrary result at an arbitrary time point. It’s a recipe for feeling unsuccessful and reverting to old habits, despite making great progress.
The solution is to focus less on goals and more on habits, and to tie success to each small step in the right direction. Get that right, and the results will take care of themselves.
If the purpose of your employee wellbeing strategy is to improve the long-term physical and mental wellbeing of your employees, it must include methods to help them create better habits. Because it’s the small actions they repeat every day – especially in how they eat, move, and sleep – that primarily determine their state of health and happiness.
Information alone does not do this. Providing guidance on what to do – no matter how rational, sensible, and necessary – is simply not enough.
Attempting to sustain change through motivation – using fear, guilt, accountability, or rewards – doesn’t work reliably either.
A better way is to teach your employees the skills of habit change; help them direct these skills towards the eat, move, and sleep habits with the biggest impact for them; and redesign your physical and social environment to make these habits easier for them to do.