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The Science of Better Well-Being

Motivation and inspiration are temporary feelings.1 Too many of us sign up for gym memberships and then never use them, purchase exercise equipment just to let it gather dust or make other commitments to improving our health and well-being—only to give up after those fleeting moments of initial motivation pass.

Many of us also use opportunities such as the start of a new year to set new health-oriented goals. However, when it comes to New Year’s resolutions, just eight percent of people actually remain committed long enough to accomplish them.2 That may seem discouraging, but it is possible to make lasting change.

By utilizing the principles of behavioral science, organizations can encourage their employees and members to make healthy choices an ongoing part of their lifestyle. What exactly is behavioral science? Well, it’s a school of knowledge that examines human behavior and provides theories on how to best influence them. It can be used to develop effective strategies for encouraging your population to initiate healthy habits, discontinue unhealthy ones and work toward better well-being—even after their initial inspiration begins to fade.

Why behavioral science pays off.

Companies across the country are feeling the financial burden of the expenses associated with unhealthy lifestyle choices. This includes the cost of health care expenses, and it also includes the costs associated with lost productivity for individuals who are unable to work or fulfill the full duties of their job role. In fact, one out of every four dollars employers pay for health care is related to unhealthy lifestyle choices or conditions—despite the fact that most large employers have workplace well-being programs.3

The good news is, many of these health risks and their associated costs can be mitigated. When behavioral science is utilized for the development of well-being tools and programs, employees can have a better chance of achieving and maintaining a healthier lifestyle. They’ll be more likely to follow healthy habits such as exercising, eating healthy, avoiding tobacco and getting regular health screenings. Together, these lifestyle changes can help to prevent chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes—which account for 75 percent of the nation’s health spending. 4

How WebMD utilizes behavioral science.

WebMD is committed to ensuring our own employees have access to evidence-based resources to support them with living healthy lifestyles. To make this happen, our employee well-being strategy leverages four behavior science principles:

1. Inspire your audience.

Confidence is key when it comes to well-being. It’s important to help people feel assured that they have the ability to achieve their health goals, whether they’re managing a chronic condition or simply trying to get more steps in each day.

  • Create a trigger and provide reinforcement – Utilize various forms of outreach and messaging (web, app, phone, mail) to inform, inspire and encourage people to engage in your well-being initiatives. As they engage and begin to make progress, follow-up with congratulatory messages, encouraging them to keep going and remain engaged.
  • Avoid decision fatigue – Rather than overwhelming people with so many participation options that they don’t participate in anything at all, craft a program design that aligns with your key strategic initiatives. Focus on your population’s unique needs and desires.
  • Leave room for personalization – Behavior science demonstrates a positive correlation between autonomy and satisfaction. Allow people to set their own health goals and determine their priorities. You may find that their satisfaction with your well-being program improves as a result.

2. Start with small steps.

For many people, focusing solely on long-term health goals can be so daunting that they’re discouraged from getting started at all. While people should be encouraged to pursue long-term goals, supporting them achieving shorter-term accomplishments along the way helps them to appreciate their success and builds the motivation and confidence they need to continue their efforts.

For example, remind individuals working toward a target weight goal that every time they tighten their belt size, they’re losing weight! And, that they can and should keep going.

3. Celebrate accomplishments.

People have an innate desire to complete a meaningful “chunk” of something. Providing recognition and rewards throughout a well-being program experience can be a great way to help people celebrate smaller health accomplishments. Rather than offering a large incentive at the end of a well-being  challenge, divide it into smaller rewards throughout the challenge.

4. Inspire new social norms.

What others say and do can influence the way we act. According to a recent study, people eat a more nutritious diet and get more exercise when they perceive their co-workers as eating healthy and being physically active.5

To inspire your population and make well-being the norm at your organization, encourage participation in health-oriented games and competitions. At WebMD, we offer The Invitational Team Steps Challenge. During the competition, employees join a five-person team and compete against their co-workers to see who can track the most steps over the course of five weeks. It’s fun, easy and helps to encourage our entire staff to keep moving throughout the day.

Lasting change and a healthier outlook.

Healthcare costs related to poor health behaviors can be a burden for organizations. According to a recent study, the average health care cost for a healthy employee is roughly $3,000, and roughly $10,000 for an employee with at least one medical condition. 6

Improving the health and mitigating the health care costs of your population will require you to leverage the evidence-based techniques of behavior science. By following these principles, you can help encourage people to make day-to-day changes that can lead to lasting long-term health.


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