Why most employee wellbeing initiatives fail (and what to do instead)

Employee wellbeing is a competitive advantage

As you know, a crucial factor in the long-term success of your business is the long-term wellbeing and performance of your people.

This is why many companies in the finance and fintech sectors are investing heavily in employee wellbeing. The firms who get it right will gain a competitive advantage. The firms who don’t, risk falling behind.

Imagine the impact on your business if more of your employees came to work with higher levels of energy, engagement and enthusiasm, more of the time. You can make that a reality.

However, most traditional employee wellbeing initiatives do not result in lasting change and, therefore, do not provide the ROI you or your employees want.

We believe a new approach is needed. The success of your business could depend on it.

The ‘Information-Action Fallacy’

Most employee wellbeing initiatives provide information, and information alone. Typically, the information provided includes reasons why to take action (e.g., the dangers of stress) and/or recommendations of what action to take (e.g., meditate).

Though usually well received, the long-term impact of these initiatives on employee wellbeing is negligible.

Why? Because information alone does not reliably change behaviour.

BJ Fogg, the Director of the Behaviour Design Lab at Stanford University, calls this the ‘Information-Action Fallacy’. Unfortunately, knowing what to do and why to do it does not result in lasting change in most people, even in those who really want to change.

A study at Yale University in the 1960s illustrates this point well. Yale students received fear-inducing information about the dire health risks of tetanus and the importance of getting vaccinated at the campus health clinic. Most students were convinced and intended to get vaccinated. But only 3% did.

There is no shortage of good-quality, easy-to-find, free-of-charge health information out there. Many people want to follow it, but very few do.

Some companies have recognised that employee wellbeing requires more than just information, and, over the past few years, have invested in more structured and intensive wellbeing programmes. On the face of it, these programmes look very impressive. But all is not what it seems. Let’s take a closer look.

Short-term results do not predict long-term success

The 6-month employee wellbeing programme has been a popular choice for many companies over the last decade or so. And it delivers what it promises – impressive results by the end of the programme. A positive return on investment for your company and your people.

Unfortunately, it’s an illusion, because these short-term results do not predict long-term improvements in wellbeing. And, worse still, the programme providers know this.

An overwhelming amount of scientific research tells us that diet and exercise interventions tend to work well for six months, but then results decline. Below is a graphic from a meta-analysis which synthesised the data from 80 weight-loss trials with a follow-up period of at least one year.

As you can see, whether the intervention is diet alone, exercise alone, or a combination of diet and exercise, the pattern is the same. Results peak at six months, then fall away.

The traditional 6-month employee wellbeing programmes are structured in a similar (albeit less rigorous) way to these clinical trials. The main elements are as follows:

  • Initial health assessment (often including a blood test) to set a baseline
  • Goal setting (specific results to achieve by the end)
  • Diet and exercise recommendations (occasionally other aspects, such as sleep, are included)
  • Regular follow-up consultations (to keep participants on track)
  • Final assessment at six months (to measure individual and programme success)

The track record of these programmes may look good, but that’s because they are specifically designed to evaluate success in the short-term, when results are at their peak.

Looking at the chart above, you may be thinking that, even though the benefits start to erode after six months, some of the improvements persist for a few years. You’re right. But that’s not good enough. The long-term trajectory is back to baseline and, more importantly, this is being hidden from you.

In fact, in a more recent meta-analysis of 121 diet trials, body weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels all improved after six months. But after 12 months, most of the benefits had virtually disappeared.

Why does this happen? It happens because most people revert back to their previous way of living – they don’t stick to the diet or the exercise recommendations. In other words, there is no lasting behaviour change.

How to (and how not to) create lasting behaviour change

In his ground-breaking book, Tiny Habits: Why Starting Small Makes Lasting Change Easy, BJ Fogg 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.”

True epiphanies are rare – you can’t bank on them for behaviour change. So, that leaves environment change and changing habits in tiny ways. The traditional 6-month employee wellbeing programmes are not designed to help employees do either of these things.

The main levers the programmes pull to induce change are:

  • Goal setting – typically lofty and arbitrary goals
  • Motivation – to do the big things required to meet the big goals
  • Results focus – as a measure of success

As we’ve seen, this does not result in lasting change.

Motivation is an unreliable partner in behaviour change

Most people believe that motivation is the driving force of behaviour change. If you have a big enough carrot, or a big enough stick, we are told, you can get yourself to do anything. Unfortunately, this isn’t true.

For any behaviour 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.

On 1 January, many people get a spike in motivation to plan and action some big ‘resolutions’ in the new year, such as giving up alcohol, going to the gym every day, or completing a language course. BJ Fogg calls this the ‘Motivation Wave’. You can ride the wave for a while, but it soon comes crashing down. How many new year’s resolutions have you stuck with?

Motivation also fluctuates. It fluctuates day to day, hour to hour, and even minute to minute. It’s raining outside, we feel tired, our friend didn’t show up, we lose interest. The thing we really wanted to do (and did) yesterday, or an hour ago, no longer seems so attractive.

The fact is, we have little control over our motivation, so we can’t rely on it to change our behaviour. Instead, we must design around it by starting very small and by changing our environment.

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 – it’s an abstraction. To sleep better, you first need to identify the specific, actionable behaviours that will help get you there, and then put those behaviours into practice consistently.

Very few health and wellbeing programmes (not just employee wellbeing programmes) get this right. They typically attempt to motivate people towards abstractions (not behaviours), 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. And that’s because 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 behaviours, and to tie success to each small step in the right direction. Get that right, and the results will take care of themselves.

A new approach to employee wellbeing

To help more of your employees come to work with higher levels of energy, engagement, and enthusiasm, more of the time, you need a different approach to employee wellbeing. An approach that doesn’t rely on goals, motivation and results.

At BioMe, we have developed a unique, modular system for helping your employees to create lasting behaviour change in the areas that matter most to their wellbeing and performance.

Module 1: Health fundamentals

We help your employees to clarify their true health aspiration(s), not an arbitrary goal that we think they should have. This provides an enduring motivation for change. We then help them to break this aspiration down into the most effective behaviours that they want to do and think they can do.

Module 2: Small steps to success

We remove the reliance on motivation by coaching your employees in the skills of habit formation. We help them to start small (very easy), find the best fit, feel successful every step of the way, and build small wins into transformative change.

Module 3: Wellbeing culture

We advise you on how to create a company culture supportive of wellbeing, by priming the physical environment to make healthier choices the path of least resistance and developing a social environment that makes healthier behaviours the normal behaviours.

Improving employee wellbeing and performance requires lasting behaviour change. The traditional approaches don’t achieve this. You need a system that does.

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