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In search of ‘well being and behaviour change’ in the workplace

By ucjubil, on 28 March 2017

By: Dr Mark Cobain, co-founder and director, Younger Lives Group


“I get asked to deliver wellbeing all the time. I still don’t know what the hell it means!” Occupational Health Professional, March 2017

Last week we exhibited our new ‘Younger Lives’ products at the Health and Wellbeing at Work event at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. It’s the first time we attended. Most of those attending were largely from occupational health and human resource communities from small and large organisations in the public and private sector looking for ways to “engage” their staff with health and wellbeing. Many were just starting their foray into the space, trying to get inspiration for new ways to introduce the concept to their people.

I think we all know that core to the behaviour change approach is the question – “what are we trying to change”? This is a bit of a problem when we talk about improving ‘wellbeing’ at work. It’s an amorphous concept to get your head around. On the other hand, we felt we had something interesting to say and provide an evidence-based approach to people who want to do something positive for their people. HR and occupational health professionals clearly want to see a “healthier workforce” which includes better physical and mental health. The underpinning assumption is that better physical and mental health (and greater ‘engagement’) will lead to more productive workforces. It’s a shorthand business rationale that is simple and a bit of a mantra. When you ask people what it all really means you can see people find it a bit confusing. What does ‘well being’ mean in a concrete sense? What are we trying to achieve?  It’s a bit like the judge who describes pornography as something that is not easy to define but you know it when you see it.

For some attendees ‘well being’ was ‘anything that gets people engaged’, or gives ‘quick wins with employees’ or perhaps gets people to ‘take their health seriously’. Others are very clear about what it means and drill down to much more specific descriptions relevant to their own workplace. Interestingly the more specific people are, the less it sounds like the holistic vision of ‘well-being’ that you see in popular definitions, but is that a bad thing?

Well…no I don’t think so. My view is that ‘well being’ should be seen as a framework, within which a person and their organization can work through their own priorities.

A respected colleague once said to me “When someone tells me passionately that we have to do something about unhealthy lifestyles in society, I usually agree and tell them that our first job should be to work out what that thing is”.  Too often we charge off on a mission to do something that sounds great, but doesn’t work.

In order to understand what behaviours or mind-sets to change in the workplace, there is simply no substitute for working out what needs to be done first in that organisation and how that aligns with the people within it. There are things that are transferable from organisation to organisation, but they should be piloted first. We shouldn’t just use a blunderbuss or wander around aimlessly trying ‘stuff’.

What are we trying to achieve? How will we know we’ve done it?

What does better productivity really mean for an organisation? What is the age and demographic profile of the staff? What is the current mental and physical health of employees? What do they care about? Do they really want a table tennis table in the restaurant? Is it really about doing another step/stair-climb challenge? All of these could be nice things to do, but can we assume its what people want and need? Can we assume it’s what an organisation wants and needs?

For these initiatives to be sustained, what are the outcomes that we want to achieve as a result? How can they be measured? Can they be measured? How will we know we are successful? Without this it’s a tough sales gig for anyone.

Well-being should be considered a framework for organisations to innovate within

For us ‘well-being’ should remain a diffuse concept, because people and organisations have different priorities and needs. It doesn’t mean that you have to tackle all of these things at once. At Google campus in London, we’ve seen the most incredible, healthy food developed for employees and amazing facilities to support employees manage healthier lifestyles. From that launch pad it’s led them to branch over time into other related areas of wellbeing. Other organisations have provided employees with the opportunity to take time off throughout the year and volunteer their services in the community. This provides potential ‘wellbeing’ to employees who get the chance to give something back to communities who see them as distant. However, no doubt not everyone engages with these big initiatives within an organisation and its not clear always that the effects are long term.

Not everyone will love what you do

So, yes so our organisation does sell its products to those (clearly enlightened) people whose eye it catches and those who want to engage with it can do. It begins with a ‘Life Age’ test asking individuals about different, important aspects of physical and mental health lifestyle factors that are related to wellbeing. It also includes life satisfaction and sense of purpose as core component. Analysis of data shows that this particular factor is essential for healthier lifestyle factors. It’s somewhat of a clue where to start! It also has plans designed to improve an individual’s health based on behaviour change strategies. However, an artist once said “it is extreme arrogance to imagine everyone will love what you do”.  So the people who loved it at the NEC and want to use it that’s great! For those that didn’t it wasn’t for them. It may not fit for their organisation in one form or another.

The challenge and rewards of innovating in workplace health and wellbeing

However, as a behaviour change agent, I’m more interested than ever, having attended the event, in those people who are what we might call the “contemplators” (yes I know the stages of change model has its flaws and isn’t as cool as newer models…), or who are considering their own, or their organisation’s, “self efficacy” in setting up a health and wellbeing initiative.

Inspire, Innovate, Measure and Reward

Introducing a behaviour change initiative in the workplace is not something that should be taken lightly. Before embarking on it, its best to evaluate carefully and contemplate first what should be done before doing it. However, there is no doubt that employees who believe their organisation genuinely cares about their wellbeing will love working there, which has all sorts of benefits. You can make a start by launching a campaign that draws in and intrigues employees to think about their well-being and work with them to consider how best to respond to it.

As a result of our experience at the NEC and the conversations we had, we realised our best asset was to talk with individuals to understand their own, and their organisations, approach to sustained well-being.  What we know from the world of behaviour change is that defining what we want to achieve and committing to measurement of that is the most important step.  The prize is better ‘well being’, whatever you decide that to be.

If you are interested in finding out more about what we do then please visit www.youngerlivesgroup.com or find out your Life Age at www.youngerlives.com

BIO: Dr Cobain has spent over 20 years working at the intersection of health psychology, epidemiology and digital health applications. He has worked across the foods and pharma industry as well as having been a research fellow in the Framingham Heart Study and is an honorary lecturer in preventive cardiology at Imperial College London. He also has a track record of publishing at this intersection in peer reviewed journals and acts as part of the editorial team for journals such as the American journal of health promotion. In 2008 he published the concept of ‘Heart Age’, which has now been adopted by the NHS and has collaborated with the CDC on its use in the United States to motivate lifestyle changes. He is also a director and co-founder of a health behaviour change company that specialises in the area of ‘healthy ageing’.” His organisation (Younger Lives) has recently launched a new lifestyle based measure of healthy ageing called ‘Life Age’ which can be found at www.youngerlives.com.

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