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How To Help Employees Build Habits That Matter

May 13, 2015 / Employee Engagement

BJ-for-blogOn the heels of Thrive Summit 2015, this article is part one of a two-part series tracking the summit’s focus on creating lasting habits and engaging culture that’ll make your organization a haven for employee well-being.

It’s no secret that everyone wants more engaged, productive, healthy employees. But lately, it can feel like a losing battle.

Why? It’s simple: employees are feeling overwhelmed. Between priorities at work and home, they have a lot on their plate. They’re stressed out and unable to make time for their well-being, meaning they’re more likely to eat on the run, skip a workout, or skimp on sleep. Sound like a personal problem? It’s not. All these habits carry into the workplace.

You understand and you want to help, so you get to work. You start by finding the right program that identifies, fosters and measures healthy behaviors. You roll it out and may even see immediate employee engagement. But there’s one area even the best well-being programs struggle with. How do you keep this momentum in the workplace and help make these behavioral changes become long-term, sustainable habits?

At the recent Thrive Summit 2015, the biggest conference on employee well-being, industry leaders helped shed light on how organizational culture supports employees in developing sustainable healthy habits – the kind they already want to form.

Changing Behaviors With Habits – Science Approved

Behavior isn’t the result of some random occurrence. It’s systematic and anyone can do it.

Behavior change is made through a combination of motivation, ability, and a trigger, Dr. BJ Fogg, director of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University, explained in his keynote speech at Thrive Summit 2015. “The key is to help employees do what they already want to do,” he said, explaining that all habits begin with a simple, easy task associated with a grander goal.

Let’s say the habit you’re hoping to motivate within your workforce involves healthier eating. The task then must be related, according to Fogg’s session. Employees won’t develop healthier eating habits by flossing each night, right?

Instead, help them complete focused, easy tasks clearly related to the goal and you’ll help turn their abilities into strengths. For example, encourage employees to add a healthy option to their lunch each day by offering free fresh fruits and veggies in the cafeteria.

Next, find the right trigger. In our example, you’d want to position your new free fruits and vegetables options so they’re the first thing employees see when they enter the cafeteria.

No matter the habit you’re hoping to motivate or the ways you approach supporting employees in achieving it, a positive emotion associated with the task immediately following the trigger is key to the behavior change process.

“A strong emotion will change a behavior from decision to reflex,” according to Fogg.

So make sure your fruit and veggies are fresh. If an employee reaches for some of that free fruit and pulls up a handful of blackened bananas and browned apples, guess what the immediate emotion will be? A rotten basket of apples could topple anyone’s best intentions. Likewise, if you feature a beautiful display of fresh, colorful options, the free fruits and veggies will look more enticing and employees will associate a positive emotion with adding one to their plate.

The final step down the path to behavior change? Give employees permission to feel successful and help them celebrate even the smallest victories. People are motivated to feel successful, and they’ll naturally want to continue building on that success.

So, once an employee grabs that fresh fruit or veggie as part of their lunch, help celebrate that small achievement. (A good old fashioned “Good job!” could do the trick.) If employees complete a task and get rewarded, they’ll feel successful and motivated to do it again.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

At the end of the day, forming a habit isn’t about perfection or sheer willpower. It’s about practice and evoking a positive emotion – and it won’t happen overnight. To help drive employees’ healthy habits, pair behavior change with programs and resources that help them identify their unique goals, measure progress, and track results. 

Want to learn more? Check out this paper for ways to infuse behavior change tactics into your employee well-being program.


M. R. Brown writes content for the marketing team at Virgin Pulse. He looks to dispense his know-how on well-being to help get employees and employers alike engaged in healthy workplaces. You can find him running trails on weekends, endlessly motivated by the thought of being chased by a wolf.

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