3 Untapped Applications of Behavioral Science to Increase Workplace Wellbeing & Productivity

3 Untapped Applications of Behavioral Science to Increase Workplace Wellbeing & Productivity

What innovation is to Apple is what wellbeing is to the workplace.  Wellbeing is no longer a trendy buzzword but a critical cornerstone embedded into business culture. As employers begin to understand and implement successful wellbeing programs and practices, they are seeing happier, healthier, and more productive employees.  But what exactly makes wellbeing function optimally and efficiently for advantageous outcomes?

In this paper, we will explore 3 key behavioral science applications to implement and augment your current workplace wellbeing program. These opportunities are driven by relevant science that can guide employers in designing a diverse, all-encompassing workplace wellbeing program.


Change the Environment to Change the Behavior

Changing how employees think, feel, and behave is central to the success of any wellbeing strategy and program.  Whether your programs focus on healthy eating, enhancing social connectedness, engagement in physical activity, or participating in other health promotion programs, the workplace wellbeing programs require a deviation from the norm and status quo.  Through employer pliability and adaptability, employee transformation is possible, despite the challenge of engaging employees in lifestyle modification.

More recent research has begun recognizing the power of small, subtle environment changes (often called “nudges”) which have systematic effects in how we think, feel and behave (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008). Contrary to environment design strategies seen in shopping malls, restaurants, hotels and casinos which have long focused on human-centered design/experience, workplace environment transformations have traditionally favored building efficiency (cost saving) at the expense of human efficiency and health. However, building efficiency adjustments have now embraced a more holistic, thoughtful design that place the human (employee) as the focal point for those practices and strategies that fall in line with the WELL Building Standard.

How to Implement Environmental Change

The smallest changes to our surrounding environments can have a powerful and lasting impact on our health behaviors, mood, and mindset (for a detailed review see; Dolan et al, 2016).  We have highlighted 2 key areas below that are the most cost effective and practical to implement in the workplace:

A) Connect with Nature: Humans have a natural affinity for nature. Bringing nature into the workplace can have a host of benefits. From improving work performance and cognitive function (attention, memory) to boosting mood and reducing stress, creating a greener work environment comes with a plethora of healthful benefits (Dolan et al., 2016).  There are two “nature” approaches gaining momentum: 1) plants, trees, flowers, ‘living walls’ (Cheng & Chan, 2005) and, 2) adding natural lighting which can be replacing bulbs that mimic natural lighting and even newer adaptive lighting which assist with circadian rhythms (Beute & de Korte, 2018).

B) Provide Choice & Autonomy: Strategically adding and designing choice in the workplace can help steer (nudge) healthier selection and even provide autonomy and foster motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2000). For example, Google recently leveraged choice architecture in their breakroom by placing healthier beverages closer to snacks where unhealthier drinks were placed further away from the snacks. This choice architecture resulted in healthier employee beverage consumption (Baskin et al., 2016).  Choice architecture can take many forms. From job design features (office layouts and lunch break options) to subtler choices such as music selection, color, and wall décor, choice architecture can provide a potent gateway towards improving employee and well-being.


Integrative Technology for Sustainable Engagement

Technology is infiltrating all aspects of our daily lives.  In isolation, it is easy to see how our phone or computer benefit us. In taking a broader perspective, how does technology impact our wellbeing? We need to consider the contributions these tools play in helping and hindering our long-term wellbeing initiatives.

All technology is not created equal

With a growing demand for and allure of ‘new’ technology claiming to ‘revolutionize the workplace’, we need to understand what tools work and how they can best support our wellbeing initiatives.  For example, social media, which is designed to ‘connect us’, can leave many feeling disconnected (Valkenburg et al., 2006). Wearables, which are designed to help us adhere to a physical activity regimen, can diminish our motivation and lead us to quit (Etkin, 2016). Likewise, software platforms aimed at improving productivity can add more stress and distraction to our workload (Lee et al., 2016).

The take-away is not to avoid technology as it will always be an integral aspect of our lives.  Rather, we need to understand how the interaction between employees and technology functions in the workplace to support the employer’s workplace wellbeing program goals.

Reduce Cognitive Overhead with Calm Technology

One promising avenue of technology as it relates to workplace wellbeing is calm technology (Weiser and Brown, 1996).  As opposed to traditional information technology which requires our energy and attention (e.g., computers, phone), calm technologies fold right into our lives to help us accomplish our goals (e.g., auto-dim lights, motion-sensor doors).  Calm technologies are invisible while operating and communicating in the periphery. They do not require our attention and fluently reinforce healthy social norms. Calm technology keeps us connected with what is truly important.

Technology Examples
Traditional ‘Information’ Technology Smartphones, Social Media, Internet, email, TV, and radio
Calm Technology Sunrise Simulation Alarm Clock, Color Temp Adjusting Lighting, Door Motion sensors, self-silencing applications


Create Culture with a Holistic Vision

Cultivating a strong and healthy culture is at the core of all successful workplaces.  Despite being widely accepted and universally preached, many are still confused with what culture actually is. Most importantly, how do we improve culture progressively and smartly?

Culture is not something preached or written; it is something we experience, practice, and improve (Taras et al., 2009).  It is not something you buy, but rather breathe and feel.  Culture is the implicit workplace norms that govern everything from strategic business decisions to individual health behaviors within an organization.

For example, by simply looking at Google and Goldman Sachs offices we can easily identify some basic cultural norms.  Google embraces a creative, collaborative, and flexible culture whereas Goldman’s employees thrive on a more formal and strict culture.  The point is, there is no one-size fits all with culture, As such, culture cannot be perceived as a cookie cutter approach.  Instead, culture should embrace business goals and values while also encompassing wellbeing initiatives to achieve the best outcomes.

It is also important to note that many organizations simply lack a culture. In other words, established norms and values are not defined, easily understood or universally embraced.  For guidance on nurturing a positive culture, we included four widely accepted culture dimensions and five areas for which you can build and spread your culture and values.

Bring these 4 Dimensions into your Culture…

4 Dimensions of Culture  
Power Distance Degree people are comfortable with influencing upwards vs. acceptance of inequality in distribution of power
Uncertainty Avoidance How comfortable people are with changing the way they work vs. prefer know systems/routines
Individualism/Collectivism How individual personal vs group, team, and organizational needs and goals are prioritized
Indulgence/Restraint Allowing gratification of basic drives related to enjoying life and having fun vs. regulating it through strict social norms

Considerations for Improving Culture

Selection · Select employees with values that best fit existing organizational structure or job design

·  Use measures of cultural values to predict employee organizational attitudes and behaviors

Job Design & HR Strategy · When expanding into new offices or geographies, design jobs and HR to match the local culture

· Pay attention to organizational hierarchy design, the role of managers and their relationships with employees, compensation, promotion and decision-making systems

Customer Relations, PR, Marketing · Design products to meet values and taste of customers

· Advertising that highlights features of products/services that resonate with your values

Employee Morale · Build programs and offerings to satisfy employee’s social and belonging needs
Cross-Cultural Training · Educate employees about the effects of culture in the workplace

· Predict and prevent misunderstanding and conflict due to culture differences and cope with challenges of working in multi-cultural workplace

Adapted from Taras et al., 2011


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