The hardest part is getting started…
How many times have you heard yourself or your friends say something like “I really have to start exercising more”, or “I shouldn’t really be eating this”, or even “I’m fine the way I am”. Sometimes it seems people are just all talk and no action. But when it comes to behaviour change, intention hardly even gets you to square one.
There are several models which identify the types of things which must align in order for an individual to initiate, maintain and then build upon a change. One of the most widely accepted models is the ‘Trans-theoretical Model’, which focuses on the stages an individual goes through before change is possible. When we deny that there is even a need for change, such as with the comment “I’m fine the way I am”, we are in ‘pre-contemplation’, which means we are not ready for it and are not even intending on taking any action in the foreseeable future. Indeed, we may not even see the need for it.
‘Contemplation’ is really the first step towards change. This is where people are beginning to recognise that their current course might be problematic, but often they are still far from any kind of change, let alone a sustainable, permanent change to lifestyle. Talk is cheap and the comment “I really have to start exercising more” conveys merely an intention, but no plan and certainly no action.
In fact, according to the model, for people to progress from this they need to employ at least some of 10 distinct strategies that help them make and maintain the change, including raising their awareness to the benefits of change, tapping into negative or positive emotions that will push or pull them towards change, using rewards and controlling their environmental cues for certain behaviours. This requires planning and goal setting, and establishing new routines.
My point is that on an individual level permanent behavioural change is a well-defined process, often taking months or years to establish. There are no shortcuts and change will not be sustained for any great length of time unless the individual goes through this process. Yo-yo dieting is, sadly, such an excellent example of this phenomenon. These diets are never intended to be permanent changes – they are marketed as quick fixes and easy paths. As a result the individual never really identifies a need to change their long term default dietary habits, which means they never really move past even the contemplation phase. They never truly get started with the change and therefore their relapse is inevitable.
Studies into organisation change management have often also identified a stringent process which a business must go through in order to change, especially in relation to say, cultural changes. This makes perfect sense – an organisation is, after all, simply a collection of individuals, and each of those individuals must personally change. What is curious is that, as intuitive as this seems, many managers develop unrealistic expectations about change within their organisation. Changes which are rushed, poorly communicated, or simply authoritatively thrust upon staff rarely do as well as a long term business investment compared to more carefully implemented change.
Wellness is no different. Creating wellness in the workplace is not an event; it is a significant lifestyle change for the individual and a significant culture change for the business. You reap what you sew, and when wellness is treated as a one-off event, an after-thought, or a “nice to have”, able to be rationalised whenever the economy takes a turn, then it is not likely that staff are going to readily take up the habits which underwrite their wellness for very long, or even at all.
A good wellness program, properly structured and delivered, will deliver strong ROI because individuals make permanent changes to their lifestyle which makes them less prone to illness and injury, less prone to stress and strain, more dynamic and positive, and more resilient. This program is capable of driving down absenteeism and presenteeism. This program is able improve engagement and reduce staff turnover, and it is able to improve the quality of front line interactions with clients, or the rate of errors or rework in a production process.
The structure which this program will follow closely resembles the principles of the “Trans-theoretical Model” of individual behaviour change, with a staged roll out specifically addressing the readiness of the individual for the initiation and management of that change at any point in time:
- The first step is to raise the individual’s awareness of the concept of wellness and enhance their perception of the importance of leading a healthier lifestyle. Voluntary buy-in on a business change is always more powerful than change which is thrust upon staff, so the awareness raising process needs to be a ‘soft touch’, using multiple subtle information sources delivered over time before progressively ramping up.
- Once a strong voluntary uptake and awareness of wellness has been achieved it is time to start providing the support, encouragement and environment for lasting change. The use of champions and the leadership as the example setters is critical at this stage. It gives the concept of wellness as a productivity enhancement initiative credibility and clearly communicates the intention of the leadership to make this a committed, long term cultural change. Like the foundations of a pyramid, there is much time and effort spent on these early stages, but without them the higher levels would be tenuous and ineffective.
- What follows is the “action” phase, where education and practice is delivered to show individuals what changes they should be making and how they should be making them. The key lesson, again, is to deliver the program content in small and incremental parcels, but to do this frequently so that new habits are able to be practiced and assimilated into the individual’s routine.
Most important of all is to avoid FAILURE:
Fragmentation of Effort (HR, OH&S, Learning & Development and other groups fail to coordinate their efforts and recognize synergies)
Activities Focus (One-off seminars and lunch time group training will not change behaviours if done in isolation. The question is whether staff will be sufficiently motivated to continue with healthy habits even if the company stopped paying for activities)
Illness Orientation (Focusing on chronic illness treatment undermines the goal of prevention)
Lack of Employee Involvement (Voluntary buy-in and early involvement in the program should be key goals)
Under-emphasis on skills (Best results come from teaching individuals how to regulate their own healthy behaviours, for life)
Regard only for the Individual (Without structures in place to foster peer support and community building, changes are less likely to be permanent).
Emphasis on short term results (Lifelong change takes time to set in) There is always the temptation for a business to find an easier or cheaper way to do something, but cherry-picking program elements or being dragged into believing in the effectiveness of gimmicks only leads to disappointment with wellness programs, and the continuation of the view (among some) that they are in fact simply employee luxury items, suitable only during heady times when it is an employee’s market. In reality, a wellness program properly designed and delivered is a key productivity enhancement tool which will create lasting changes in the lifestyles of employees in the workforce. This is a sure-fire way to address a range of people productivity leaks with one single investment.  Adapted from Lang, J., 2008, Workshop Paper – prevention and wellness, Sydney: Health and Productivity Institute of Australia
There is always the temptation for a business to find an easier or cheaper way to do something, but cherry-picking program elements or being dragged into believing in the effectiveness of gimmicks only leads to disappointment with wellness programs, and the continuation of the view (among some) that they are in fact simply employee luxury items, suitable only during heady times when it is an employee’s market. In reality, a wellness program properly designed and delivered is a key productivity enhancement tool which will create lasting changes in the lifestyles of employees in the workforce. This is a sure-fire way to address a range of people productivity leaks with one single investment.
 Adapted from Lang, J., 2008, Workshop Paper – prevention and wellness, Sydney: Health and Productivity Institute of Australia