Small changes can make employees healthier

Information on staying healthy isn't enough to drive change, experts say

To improve employee wellness, companies should glean insights from behavioral economics, Google and Yale University researchers write in Harvard Business Review.

The researchers argue that the keys to effective wellness programs are "the four Ps of behavior change": process, persuasion, possibilities, and person.

To examine how those levers can promote wellness, the researchers analyzed Google employee behavior in the company's "microkitchens," which offer free food and drinks to employees throughout the day.


Researchers set up beverage stations in microkitchens 6.5 feet away and 17.5 feet away from different snack bars. They found that employees who grabbed a drink from the beverage station closer to the snack bar were 50 percent more likely to grab a snack as well—illustrating that small changes in the accessibility of choices can make a big impact.

The researchers recommend that employers design their common spaces to be more conducive to healthier decision-making, such as by positioning the fruits in a highly trafficked area of the cafeteria.


Researchers experimented with promoting unpopular vegetables as the "Vegetable of the Day," including on colorful fliers filled with fun facts about the food. Placing the fliers next to the vegetable in the cafeteria—where employees faced "the moment of truth" of deciding what to eat that day—increased consumption of the featured food by 74 percent.

Related: In the office, what you eat affects how you work

In addition to using vivid imagery and targeting "the moment of truth," the researchers say companies can achieve results by promoting "tradeoff messaging," such as explaining how much exercise is needed to burn off the calories in a soft drink.


Researchers noted that the most popular snacks in Google's microkitchens were M&Ms. Previously, most employees filled up four-ounce cups that were next to a bulk bin of the candy. The researchers replaced the bins with small, individually wrapped packages of M&Ms. As a result, the average serving size fell by 58 percent, and the average number of calories consumed from 308 to 130.

The lesson? Changing employees' possible choices "is the most obvious lever of change," and one that should not be overlooked, the researchers write.


Companies need to support employees' intentions, the researchers write, to increase the odds of changing their behavior. They say that employers should help their workers set goals, develop plans to achieve them, and provide workers with tools—such as monitoring devices—to help them turn their behavior into habits (Chance et al., Harvard Business Review, 3/3).

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