How to Empower Employees to Build Healthy Habits

The new year holds a sense of optimism. A fresh start for many. This can be reflected in the 50% of people in the United States who make a New Year’s Resolution around new goals and aspirations. New Year’s Resolutions may have come and gone (for about 80%) but the motivation and good intentions were there. How can we channel these good intentions in the workplace towards wellness by promoting healthy habits that last all year long? While habits begin on an individual-level, they can be sustained on an organization-level and it’s important for any company to cultivate an environment for employees to enact their health goals.

Habit can be defined as “a usual way of behaving : something that a person does often in a regular and repeated way”.

What are habits and why are they so tough to build?

First, it’s important to start with clarifying what we mean by a habit. Habit can be defined as “a usual way of behaving : something that a person does often in a regular and repeated way”. For example, most people have a very specific morning or bedtime routine. You probably don’t even think about it, it’s just what you do. If you were to change your routine, it would probably take a very conscious effort since you have been doing it the same way for so long.

Research has shown that pleasure-based habits are the hardest to break because the behavior prompts the brain to release dopamine which is a little dose of short term happiness. So employees might be swimming against the current when it comes to eating fruits and vegetables because they get excited for fast food since it is something that brings them pleasure, it’s a major biological and psychological shift. That can be tough!

Goals vs. Habits

The main difference between a goal and a habit is that goals have an endpoint or a finish line where habits continue indefinitely. Habits are what make up your lifestyle. Goals need to stay front of mind to be achieved where habits become second nature by being built into your everyday life. Another difference is that goals can sometimes rely on factors we don’t have control over which leads to a higher likelihood of failure. For example, having a goal of losing 10 lbs is great, but what if you twist your ankle? Is your goal not achievable? Or what if you do lose 10lbs? Are you done doing all the things that made you feel so great about yourself?

Healthy habits like packing a salad and banana for work everyday allows you to achieve similar results without relying on things outside of your control.

How can I start to motivate my employees?

Changing habits or building habits require motivation. There has to be a reason someone wakes up one morning wanting to do things differently.

These motivators can look a few different ways and some might resonate with your team better than others. One form of motivation is called extrinsic motivation and this is the idea that external rewards drive motivation so things like money, prizes or public facing recognition make someone more likely to participate. Another form is intrinsic motivation and this is a form of internal pressure to participate. This could look like the pride of a personal accomplishment,  personal health goals, the motivating factor of being there for friends and family and/or being part of a community and mission.

Some people might prefer one kind of motivation over another, while some need both to make a change so it’s important to take inventory of what forms of motivation you have in place when it comes to health and wellness at your organization. 

Putting it into action at your organization

Here are 5 steps you can take to cultivate healthy habits at your organization:
  • 1.  Provide Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivators

    Having multiple forms of motivation can appeal to everyone and help them stay committed. Does this program have leaderboards? Is there a monthly incentive? What kind of budget do we have? These are all questions that you will need to answer based on what is already in place and what resources you have. A big piece of this is your communication plan. Make sure employees know about the motivators! If you’re awarding money each month for participating in healthy habits, make sure that’s part of onboarding, in the handbook, slack and a consistent message is shared widely so people get excited to participate.

  • 2.  Remove Barriers

    Not everyone will be ready to implement change and that’s okay but removing barriers is an easy way to lower the threshold to entry. One thing to consider is bringing things to employees by making it accessible via mobile devices. Employers can also give employees a recommended tool or program for wellness. When you give employees the power to choose, sometimes they end up doing nothing since it is the path of least resistance so by providing a recommendation they are more likely to try it out.

  • 3.  Provide a Workplace That Allows for Employees to Enact Their Habits

    This is the holy grail. Encouraging employees to live healthier lives is the first step, but more importantly, allowing them to do so at work is the link you need to tie it all together. Here are a few ways you can start to create an environment where people can build those healthy habits:

    • Flexible work schedules 
    • Healthy snacks
    • Walking 1:1s
    • Casual dress code
    • Room to reserve for workout videos
  • 4.  Check-In

    This is the evaluation step and is essential in empowering employees. Do employees feel supported in their health goals? Best way to know is through data!  Have a way to review data as an employer to truly know if employees are engaging in their wellness. If you collect survey data or health metrics over time on an aggregate level these data points are key to monitor if your efforts are moving things in the right direction. 

  • 5.  Mix It Up!

    Consistency is key, but putting things on autopilot or sending out the same resources every year is not the most motivating. Try rotating out a wellness event each year or quarter based on employee focus or goals. Make wellness fun! Maybe you do a Workout Wednesday this quarter but next quarter you are going to do a Mindful Monday – you might see a bump of engagement with the switch!


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Watch the webinar on “Going Beyond January: Empowering Employees to Enact Healthy Habits All Year Long”.

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