Stickier employee wellbeing programs through urgency and ownership

  • employee wellbeing program

Creating a good employee wellbeing program is a complex task in itself, but it is only half the battle. Most programs that aim to change behavior fail because employees don’t actively engage with them. And what good is a wellbeing program if your employees don’t participate? 

Today we will take a look at a few essential steps that will help increase employee participation in your wellbeing programs. Specifically, we will take a look at the general topic of organizational change, and how creating a sense of urgency and employee ownership can make the difference between a strong and a weak wellbeing program.

As always, this post is based on over 30 research studies on workplace wellbeing, change dynamics, and motivation drawn from the fields of Industrial and Organizational psychology.

behavior change

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Three steps to change behavior

Increasing employee participation in wellbeing programs is challenging because changing behavior is alway difficult. People are “creatures of habit”, especially when it is ingrained in the day-to-day operations of your company.  

While organizational change is a complex challenge, in its most rudimentary form, it can be boiled down to three steps using Lewin’s model of change:

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  • Unfreezing
  • Changing
  • Refreezing

The first step in trying to implement change in your organization is to unfreeze the current behavior. Once behaviors, ways of thinking, and processes become common practice, they become rigid and frozen into place. Once it is frozen it becomes very difficult to change them, as people are naturally resistant to change. But we’ll discuss how urgency and ownership can help.

Once the old behavior is unfrozen, change can be made. New behaviors, processes, and ways of thinking can be learned. In this step you roll out the program and implement actual change. At this step, continued communication and support is particularly important.  

The last step of the change model is the refreezing step, which symbolizes the solidifying of the new behavior, and becoming the new status-quo. This stage is essential, as we want to ensure that people don’t revert back to their old ways of thinking, or behaviors. Ingraining the program into company culture is crucial for refreezing.

sense of urgency

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Create a sense of urgency

So how can we unfreeze behavior, to make it malleable? We can do so by creating the awareness that the current status-quo (i.e. the current way of doing things) is unacceptable, and is hindering both the company and the employees. 

So before we start rolling out our new employee wellbeing program,the goal is to convince the employees that the change is necessary and urgent, meaning that change should come sooner rather than later. This step is crucial, as urgency tends to gradually weaken over time. If not done correctly (or thoroughly enough), you may lose support halfway through the wellbeing program. 

We can do this by clearly communicating all the unpleasant facts that are tied to the current way of working. 

One option is to share costs and statistics:

  • Communicate statistics on the potential risks and costs that the employees may suffer by remaining engaged in the current behavior (e.g., fatigue, stress, burnout).
  • Link statistics on how the company/productivity is suffering due to said behavior (e.g., absenteeism and presenteeism).
  • Compare company statistics to national averages.

It is a good idea to not only present dry statistics. It will be easier for employees to downplay the risks and outcomes if the concept is not salient or personal enough. Therefore, try to also make it personal:

  • Provide testimonials from people within the company who are currently suffering or who have recovered from burn-out or anxiety
  • Set up group discussions to discuss the topics and how employees are affected within departments and teams

Aside from creating urgency, it is also important to provide your employees with a vision on how it should be, and more importantly how you aim to achieve this vision. Communicate all the steps that you will take in order to reach this vision. 

Clearly state what you expect from your employees in each step, and set concrete goals that all parties know that a set is successfully completed. Make sure the employee feels that there is a problem, but that following your strategies will solve this problem. 

Moreover, urgency will drop when it becomes clear that major change will take a long time. That is why it is important to also plan for and create short-term wins that will keep employees motivated. Look for ways by which you can incorporate participation in your (bi-)annual performance reviews. 

Reward employees who actively participate with recognition, promotions, or other tangible rewards. Set-up recurring events in which you communicate all progress made, and tie to a reward (e.g. a company dinner, or catering during lunch time).

sense of ownership

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Create a sense of ownership

Aside from creating a sense of urgency, it is also important to ensure that the employee wellbeing program is tailored to the needs of your employees, and that they both have an active part in the creation, as well as the enactment of the employee wellbeing program. By actively incorporating the employees into the employee wellbeing program, we instill a sense of ownership in the program.

We will not go into too much detail on how to create a tailor-made employee wellbeing program, as this blog post is focused on increasing participation in employee wellbeing programs. We will, however, briefly touch upon the needs assessment stage. 

In this stage we use wellbeing survey data and employee health data (i.e., employees’ mental and physical health–demographic information, reasons and duration of short-term and long-term disability claims, reasons and duration of absenteeism, changes in productivity, common complaints, etc.) to determine which needs currently exist within your company. A great additional source that will help improve participation is through the use of group discussion sessions to discuss common concerns among your employees.

focus group

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A good tool for these discussions are focus groups. You should aim to create groups of 7 – 10 people, to ensure that you have enough people to keep the conversation going, but not too much that people feel unheard, or fall to the background. Each group will be moderated by (ideally) an impartial and trained moderator, who will guide the discussion on various topics that are related to your wellbeing topic. 

Some example questions for a known topic could be:

  • What are the challenges or shortcomings of the existing workplace wellbeing program (if one already exists)?
  • What are the important health issues impacting your wellbeing topic (e.g. presenteeism)?
  • What jobs/individuals are at risk for your wellbeing topic?
  • What are important individual and environmental risk factors impacting your wellbeing topic–like work culture, rules, management, or anything else in the work environment that influences the employee?

For an unknown topic, some example questions could be:

  • What important health issues are most prevalent in the workplace?
  • What jobs/individuals are at risk?
  • What are important individual and environmental risk factors that are likely to cause this –like work culture, rules, management, or anything else in the work environment that influences the employee?
  • What workplace wellbeing program will the employees benefit most from?

The idea is that when employees actively contribute, the program no longer feels like something external that they have to follow, but rather something that they helped create. This will help greatly with getting people intrinsically motivated, rather than depending on external pressure or rewards. 

And don’t stop the focus groups after launching; repeat them over the duration of the wellness program. They’ll help you gauge how the employee wellbeing program is progressing, as well as bolstering your employees’ intrinsic motivation.

Aside from allowing your employees’ voices to be heard in the creation of the program, a good way to increase a sense of ownership is to get people involved in the logistics of the program. 

Specifically, it is good to locate “change agents”, who are key people within the organization that are admired or who have great influence over the other employees. For instance, you can appoint ambassadors that will spread the news on any news updates that may arise during the program, or that serve as a direct link to the organizers. You could also recruit employees to help with flyering, or creating posters that promote the program across your company. 

A tool that may help you in your search is the Political Skill Inventory. This scale gauges employees on their level of networking ability, interpersonal influence, social astuteness, and apparent sincerity, and can help you identify influential employees. Employees in leadership positions are also great candidates to recruit as change agents.

For a more in-depth guide, please take a look at our previous blog post for a step-by-step guide on creating tailor-made employee wellbeing programs

stay on your toes

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Lastly, it is important to remain on your toes. This means to be vigilant to actors and influence that can hurt participation, but also vigilant for drivers of success. Set up recurring meetings in which you rate the current state of employee wellbeing program with the ideal/expected state.

Ask yourself:

  • Why is it going well/poorly? 
  • Who are we reaching?
  • Who aren’t we reaching?
  • What factors are facilitating the change process?
  • What factors are suppressing the change process?
  • What can we do to further strengthen/eliminate the effect?

Remember that big changes often take time, so don’t get frustrated if you hit kinks along the way. Just be vigilant and adapt accordingly.


Making it stick

The last step of the change model is the refreezing step. This step symbolizes the solidifying of the new behavior, and becoming the new status-quo. Once our desired change has occurred, it is essential to ensure that people don’t revert back to their old ways of thinking, or behaviors. We should, therefore, aim to cement the new behavior into the company’s culture.

Some ways we can do this is to reward employees’ effort to maintain the behavior. For instance, we can add the desired behavior as a key component in the yearly performance review. Actively engaging in the behavior can then serve as an indicator for employees who are committed to the organization’s goals, and can then be rewarded with career development opportunities. 

Another good way to cement the desired behavior is to incorporate it in your socialization programs for your new employees. Communicate that the desired behavior is a core tenet of your company during the recruitment and selection process (e.g., job-postings, or job-interviews). Additionally, it can be a good idea to assign employees who best exemplify the desired behaviors as mentors for new employees. This way you will ensure that new employees learn the desired behaviors from the get go.


Recap on stickier employee wellbeing program through urgency and ownership

Increasing participation in employee wellbeing programs can be difficult to achieve if your employees feel that change is necessary and urgent, and if the employee wellbeing program is not built with the employees’ needs in mind. 

Therefore, to increase participation, we need to create a sense of urgency by:

  • Communicating why the status-quo is bad
  • Making the communication personal
  • Providing your employees with a vision on how it should be
  • Reinforcing urgency with short-term wins

Moreover, we need to create a sense of ownership by:

  • Engaging employees in the creation of the program
  • Engaging employees in the logistics of the program
  • Recruiting influential employees as change agents

Lastly, it is important to remain vigilant by periodically gauging the state of the process.

Once change has occurred efforts should be made to ingrain it in the company culture by implementing it in performance evaluation and socialization processes. 

Please take a look at our previous blog post for an in-depth guide on creating tailor made employee wellbeing programs.