How to Create a Healthier Workforce Using Behavior Change Science

Apr 20, 2022 8:00:00 AM

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If you take some time to observe the workers in your office or factory over the course of a day, you’ll find a fascinating mix of habits. Perhaps Joanne always arrives at work with a fancy, frothed coffee drink, and Omar regularly rides his bicycle to work. Fred gets peanut M&Ms from the vending machine around 10 a.m., and Marcella brings her own lunch – typically ham or turkey on wheat bread and an apple.

Certainly, we all have habits and routines that allow us to move through life without having to think through every step, and that can be a good thing. But when habits become destructive and begin to impact our mental and physical health, they may need to change. That’s where science can be a big help.

If you’re noticing some health problems in your workforce tied to unhealthy habits and patterns, you might want to brush up on the science behind behavior change so you can offer wellness programs and services that actually work. Here are a few important findings to get you started:


  1. Old habits are like zombies. They only stay buried for so long. 

Blame it on the basal ganglia. When we create a habit, the neurons in that part of the brain change to accommodate the learning taking place. They change again when that habit is broken, but it takes very little to reignite activity toward that old habit. In other words, even if you kicked the daily ice cream habit to lose a few pounds, it may only take a few days of indulgence to send you off the wagon. 

Employer takeaway: A wellness program that emphasizes long-term lifestyle change over restrictive diets will have a better track record, because it emphasizes small, steady habit changes that aren’t erased by an occasional relapse.

What else does science have to say about forming new habits?
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  1. Change comes in stages (six, to be exact).

The well-known Transtheoretical Model of Change outlines six steps involved in changing a behavior: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance and relapse. Researchers found that most people travel through these stages in order and, after relapse, often have to repeat steps to achieve their desired result.

Employer takeaway: You’ll want to have workplace wellness offerings that cover all six steps, but that may mean complementary rather than stand-alone services.  For instance, one effort may provide information about the dangers of opioid use and suggest resources to help with addiction, while another program will walk the employee through the steps of actually breaking the habit. 

Here’s how you can calculate potential medical cost savings by offering a digital chronic disease prevention program as an added benefit to members.
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  1. Quick feedback is the fertilizer of behavior change.

Education research has found that programs that offer feedback quickly and in the context of learning the skill help new habits take root faster. This allows learners to easily connect the feedback to the behavior, while it’s fresh in their minds, and immediately put the instruction into practice.

Employer takeaway: Seek out behavior change programs that let workers know in real-time how they are doing, and how they can improve. Digital health tools are especially useful for this, since the employee can access them when and where they need them, without having to wait for an appointment.


Changing habits is hard, but when your workplace wellness menu includes programs based on solid brain and behavioral science, your employees can overcome the barriers and make real and lasting progress on their health. 

Want to learn more science-based strategies for improving employee health? Download our eBook, The Science Behind Healthy Habit Formation