Helping employees keep their New Year’s resolutions

This time of year has always represented a period of new starts and, in reality, getting to things that had to be put off in the stressful year-end months of November and December.Included in this are all those resolutions to improve one’s health, whether it’s to learn how to lower stress (and blood pressure), manage energy better or to really lose that extra weight. Organizations that have made employee wellness a priority can capitalize on this focus to create momentum. To do so successfully, it’s helpful to consider a few principles of behavioral economics.The first is that even though there is a push for making change for the better, human beings often return to the status quo. So on Jan. 2, your sales department manager might be focused on turning over a new leaf to drink his daily eight glasses of water, but two weeks later, he’s back to the Mountain Dews. Why does this happen? Why wasn’t the good feeling he got from sticking to his new hydration plan enough after the first week?Moving into change is often unfamiliar and may be too big a departure from the previously practiced habits. Change is best sustained when it can be made in increments and with accessible supports. For example, it’s easier to eat healthy when fresh fruits, salads and nutritious soups are made readily available as lunch options. Usually it’s the French fries, burgers and sugar-laden snacks that are within a short walk down the hall or reach across the conference table.A simple shift could be to have the healthier alternatives at least alongside the less nutritious food and drink at a meeting. Bigger change may involve switching out the empty-calorie items in the vending machines to ones that are still delicious but truly nourishing.Another principle of behavioral economics is that many people will choose the more immediate outcome (think gratification) to a longer term pay-off. So while a good number of your employees may plan to get to the gym more, in reality, the 5 a.m. alarm tends to lose out to the seduction of staying in a warm bed and getting another hour of sleep.To shake this up, some companies have attached a financial incentive to exercising regularly with noted success.Building in supportWith regard to working with the power of more immediate gratification, increasing the frequency of incentives can create the added motivation needed to first find time to move one’s body and then to actually do it. The idea is to help employees associate the practice of a healthy behavior with something pleasurable and positive so they are likely to repeat it.Initially, the connection may be made between going out for a walk and the external reward, but it can eventually shift to all intrinsic — from noticing that it just feels good to take a break and get outside to feeling more energized and productive on the afternoons after having taken a walk.One huge dynamic that psychologists, sociologists and consumer researchers have all documented is the power of people wanting to belong to the ingroup. We observe and emulate the behavior that appears to be the norm. This is at the heart of creating momentum and a culture of health.In regard to health promotion strategies, holding wellness contests and events in which employees get to see other employees participating raises motivation to want to be a part and to do well. “Biggest Loser” competitions and company-sponsored 5k run/walks are very visible and even contagious.Another aspect is that natural and needed support can be built into these structures. When you have teams competing in a contest, team members can and will encourage each other to keep going. They also may share with each other how to make the habit shifts a little easier. Hearing how one member makes sure she has her favorite fruits available while banishing the cookies she usually grabs for may inspire someone to do the same.For more ideas, you can access a PowerPoint presented by Aon Hewitt on behavioral economics available on the Worksite Wellness Council of Massachusetts’ website, LeClair, a psychologist and consultant who has worked in the fields of workplace wellness, behavioral change and work/life coaching, is co-founder of Full Spectrum Wellness, Manchester.