How to help employees change unhealthy habits

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For wellness programs to really work — to boost engagement, improve health outcomes and lower healthcare costs — they must help members exchange bad habits for good ones.

But changing an ingrained habit is tough. Really tough. Habits are automatic. Habits are choices we make that don’t feel like choices at all — like not being as active as we could, going to bed late or eating that bowl of ice cream at 9 p.m.

So how does a person even go about changing an ingrained habit? First, he must have an awareness or recognition that a habit needs changing. Then he must find the desire and readiness to change — along with the right information and skills to support making the change. But even when all these critical factors are in place, changing a habit requires yet another vitally important skill: self-efficacy.

What exactly is self-efficacy? It is the strength of belief — or lack thereof — in one’s ability to complete tasks or reach goals.

Take someone who says, “I want to lose 40 pounds. My doctor says it will help control my high blood pressure. My kids will stop complaining that I’m tired all the time. And I know it will help me feel better about myself. But I just don’t think I can do it.”

Despite the many good reasons to lose weight, without self-efficacy, this individual likely won’t succeed. But that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless: Self-efficacy is a skill that every person, with the right supports, can develop.

But how can self-efficacy help members make lasting changes for better health?

To answer this question, it may help to take a look at its history. Psychologist Albert Bandura, in his work on social cognitive theory, identified self-efficacy as an important ingredient for success in approaching challenges, goals and tasks. He studied how an abundance or lack of self-efficacy impacts people’s ability to change. He found that people with high self-efficacy are more likely to start and stick with the effort needed to change a behavior, even when faced with setbacks or barriers. And they are more likely to sustain the changes they make. In a sense, self-efficacy is another word for personal empowerment. When you believe you can do something, you’re empowered to make it happen.

So it stands to reason that a wellness program that supports self-efficacy training as an integral part of its offerings should be more successful than one that doesn’t. Here are five ways wellness programs can help their members build self-efficacy:

1. Encourage little steps and help members savor every success. Help participants break overly ambitious health goals into smaller, more attainable ones. Then urge participants to track their progress and savor success for each goal met. Multiple successes eventually lead to a sense of mastery, which builds self-efficacy. Fitness, nutrition and weight loss challenges “tiered” by difficulty level offer participants a wide range of goals that let everyone get in on the success.

2. Teach members to reflect on past successes, visualize and practice. You’ve heard the sayings, “It’s not a sprint, but a marathon,” and “Slow and steady wins the race.” Setting and reaching a health goal often requires taking a longer view, committing to it, thinking about and visualizing what success looks and feels like, and then consistently practicing behaviors that lead to meeting that goal. Wellness programs built on the tenets of self-efficacy help individuals draw on past success, and practice behaviors that support success over time. Health coaches are particularly effective at helping individuals develop these skills.

3. Don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of “good.” Building self-efficacy means knowing there will always be setbacks along the way and planning ahead to deal with them when they occur. Effective wellness programs help members plan for and deal with the inevitable setbacks through mobile reminders, “touch-base” sessions with coaches and encouragement from a support group. Helping members deal with setbacks means teaching them to recommit to their goals — each time they have a slip.

4. Encourage members to build support groups. Have you ever witnessed someone you know accomplish something and thought, “If he can do, so can I!”? Your employees very likely feel the same. Testimonials and frequent communications that demonstrate the successes of colleagues can help others see that they, too, can succeed. Seeing others reach a goal helps provide the inspiration and encouragement members need to build their self-efficacy. Successful wellness programs also make it easy for participants to build a support network that engages everyone in collaborative “atta-boys.” Getting and staying healthy is a personal journey, but it often “takes a village” to get there.

5. Teach stress management to support greater self-efficacy. Unmanaged stress has a negative effect on self-efficacy. Stress comes from lots of places —work, home and health — and it pulls attention away from personal health goals. Wellness programs need to help members first deal with and manage stressors, or long-term health goals will take a back seat. To start, give members tools for coping, so they become less reactive to stress, as well as less distracted by it. Mindfulness, relaxation and imagery techniques are a few such tools.

Teach members how to practice positive self-talk and affirmations, too, which in turn help build optimism and self-efficacy. Working with a health coach is a particularly good way to learn about and practice these new skills — ones that put stress in its place.

For wellness programs to work, and to support members in changing hard-to-break habits, they must go beyond offering incentives, counting steps, and conducting challenges. Getting and staying healthy is a lifelong human journey — one that requires the right tools for each individual at the time he or she is ready. Tools and techniques that build member self-efficacy must be completely integrated and part of the fabric of a wellness program’s offerings. Support member self-efficacy and give your wellness program a better chance of success.

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Wellness programs Healthcare plans Healthcare benefits Healthcare delivery Benefit communication Employee communications Employee engagement