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Nudge theory and wellbeing

Employers are footing the bill for wellness schemes and not getting the benefits so something needs to change

The wellness of UK employees is teetering on the precipice and employers, despite their best efforts, are at a crossroads as to how to address it. Presenteeism, stress and expanding waistlines are affecting not only performance and outputs but also overall health; increasing the risk of suffering a catastrophic illness – such as cardiovascular problems, stroke, cancer, etc.

I firmly believe that the best way to change this current predicament is for employers, led by HR, to share joint responsibility with employees for their wellness.

For the most part HR does all it can to help employees be as well as they can. Subsidised canteen, cycle to work schemes and free gym memberships are common tactics to encourage wellness. However, the take-up on these offerings can often be low. Or worse: employees sign up and then fail to use them. Employers are footing the bill and not getting the benefits so something needs to change.

In my opinion the answer is going back to the old carrot and stick formula, nudge theory or behavioural psychology. When people have a motivation to do something (free trial, discounts etc) it’s uncanny how they tend to try and get their money’s worth.

People do however need to take some ownership. Taking personal responsibility delivers outcomes that then trigger emotional connections. Getting fitter for many people is not only physiological, but also affects how they perceive themselves socially and sexually. So why not apply some of this to employee benefits?

Employers who offer gym memberships (being a popular choice in helping get people active) could start asking for a monthly contribution from the employee that opts in but fails to get active. The choice is simple – use the free benefit you’re claiming or take the financial hit. Employers also get a benefit – a small contribution to a costly outlay, which could in turn be re-invested in training and development or a potentially fitter employee.

This approach also works because it fits in with one of the most powerful change metrics – behaviour change. Having the incentive (or punitive threat) to go to the gym will encourage a change in routine and approach to fitness. This in turn should stimulate a more consistent approach to exercise, and consequently health and wellbeing.

Working successfully in business relies on partnerships. HR has a responsibility to look after the workforce, but it’s not just a one-way relationship. Employees should take some responsibility for their performance, as both parties enter into the relationship in good faith that there will be an equal contribution. Often we talk about employees going over and above, but there is also the issue of them not doing enough too.

No-one wants to be the bad guy in the employee wellness debate, but something needs to budge and maybe it’s time we took a more holistic view, just as we would with the business balance sheet.

Eric Craig is CEO of social enterprise free2cycle