High-performing organizations have long known that the key to sustainable business success lies in an organization’s ability to engage employees and empower them to bring their best selves to work every day. Those same organizations know that total employee well-being — from physical, emotional and psychological to financial, educational and relational — is foundational to their business. Research continues to show that companies that invest in the health and well-being of their employees have happier, more productive employees who are better collaborators and stronger leaders. Companies that invest in employee well-being also see stronger business results.

See also: 3 key predictors of success in employee well-being programs

The question many employers struggle with is how to create those thriving cultures from the ground up. How can employers help employees build the skills, habits and behaviors that drive both individual and workplace well-being? Many of us would like to be healthier, but don’t know where to begin. And just as individuals often struggle to change their behaviors, employers often lack the tools and know-how to help employees establish or change the habits that are at the core of those behaviors.

[Image credit: Bloomberg]
[Image credit: Bloomberg]

Most people don’t realize that forming a new habit is similar to developing a new skill — it takes practice, repetition, discipline and, yes, celebration. Many workplaces are already designed around professional development and skill building, helping employees gain expertise that will help them succeed and grow in their career. Healthy habit formation takes this existing infrastructure and applies it to lifestyle — creating skills that enable happier, healthier, more balanced lives, both in and out of the office. This, in turn, improves the health of the business itself, improving employee productivity, engagement, and, in some cases, profitability.

Entire fields of study are devoted to skill building. Researcher BJ Fogg, PHD, a member of the Virgin Pulse Science Advisory Board and director of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University, has been researching behavior change for years, and his work has led to the emergence of a new field — behavior design. Those studying behavior design examine the way that technology and innovation can help change behavior. Working with Virgin Pulse and our clients, Fogg has applied behavior design specifically to well-being, and together we’ve identified five ways to help employees build skills and healthy habits across their personal and professional lives.

1. Match employees to the right behavior
Data from the Employee Benefit Research Institute shows that 71% of employees join wellness programs to learn about their health risks. This implies that most people don’t have a clear picture of their health, nor do they understand which behaviors they’ll need to change to improve their life. Well-being technology that helps employees first learn their health risks and then take steps to change them will be more successful at building healthy habits than programs that take a one-size-fits-all approach.

2. Make the process easy to understand
Changing behavior can be a painstaking process, so it’s important to keep the method simple. Even the most effective programs will be abandoned if they’re overcomplicated or require a lot of preparation. Instead, employees should see a clear pathway to future success. Help employees set personal goals, establish benchmarks, and chart their progress along the way. Wearable technology that monitors activity, sleep or calorie intake can simplify the learning curve, making it incredibly easy for employees to see how they’re doing, identify areas of improvement, and work toward a quantifiable goal.

3. Inspire and encourage change
How many of us have put off a necessary diet until the next week, month, or even year? For healthy habits to ever take hold, they need to be triggered. Like any new course, training regimen, or skill building journey, healthy habits need a syllabus and a start date. Employers can trigger healthy habits by providing tools that help employees tap into their motivation. For example, well-targeted and well-timed communications that highlight program start dates, social support groups, and other well-being programs will encourage people to begin. Mobile technology — with push notifications and location-based services — can remind people of their goals and encourage them to check in with their program. Motivation waxes and wanes over time — some days we’re excited for a challenge, others days we aren’t. By cleverly and constantly leveraging communications tools and technology, employers can trigger healthy habits and lifestyle skills when individuals are feeling most motivated to start.

4. Celebrate and reward success
Well-being incentives have become increasingly popular in America’s workplaces. Some studies suggest that as many as 75% of well-being programs include some form of monetary reward. We’ve found that incentives can be a powerful impetus to action — a key trigger, as we discussed — that sparks long-term change. That said, there are many other ways to celebrate and reward success, methods that are equally aligned to long-term habit formation. The key is to tap into intrinsic motivators — feelings of accomplishment, social recognition, achievement of goals and so on. Celebration can be as simple as a statement of support, a digital badge or a public acknowledgement. When it comes to rewards, a little can go a long way.

5. Provide supportive environments
No skill happens overnight. For habits to take hold, they must be repeated. Social technology provides employees with support when they hit roadblocks or during periods of low motivation. Peers can also provide tips and advice for ways to overcome challenges. Well-being technology that connects people working towards common goals provides a supportive framework for employees to test their new skills, make mistakes, and keep trying.

When these five behavior design principles are properly deployed and supported, employees are able to turn skill building techniques into healthy habits that follow them from the office into their homes and vice versa. This continuous reinforcement across an employee’s personal and work life creates consistency and helps drive higher well-being and long-term behavior change. The business results speak for themselves as well: Data from Gallup shows that employees who have high well-being are 27% more likely to report “excellent” performance by their organization. As healthy habits gain traction in an organization, employee well-being increases and workplace cultures thrive, becoming healthier, more engaged and productive, and ultimately, more successful.

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Chris Boyce

Chris Boyce

Chris Boyce is CEO of Virgin Pulse.