Why is behavior change so hard?

August 13 2018 / by Mari Ryan


Helping employees make behavior changes is an important part of many workplace wellness programs. That means eating right, not using tobacco, limiting alcohol and sugar, getting the right amount of sleep and exercise, wearing sun screen, and managing stress. Oh, and don’t forget about flossing your teeth, getting timely preventative screenings… and the list goes on. I feel stressed just thinking about doing everything perfectly all the time. [Cue the chocolate break!] But it’s not about being perfect all the time, it’s about adopting good daily habits that include healthy behaviors most of the time.

Research has shown the link between lifestyle choices and chronic disease. The assumption is that employees who have chronic diseases will cost the organization more, be absent more often, and be less productive at work. Hence, the need for behavior change programs in the workplace to manage those real and hidden costs.

But are these programs changing behaviors over the long-term? In many cases, the behavior change programs are built as one-size fits all type of program, with little attention paid to an employee’s starting point or their personal goals. For example, a walking or steps challenge is a typical behavior change program. The program is often promoted as “walk 10,000 steps a day.” We’ve all seen these. And we know who signs up - the same folks every time. They are typically those who are already healthy and can achieve the goal fairly easily. For someone who only walks 2,000 steps a day, this canfeel like an impossible goal.

One employer with whom we worked, started a weekend hiking club. The hikes were easy for the first few weeks then got increasingly more difficult. The final hike was to the top of a local mountain. It was achievable for everyone because they worked up to it slowly and consistently. Those who were more experienced encouraged those who were new. It was a group activity that fostered relationship building and connection. A successful behavior change program needs to meet the participants where they are and help them build success from that starting point.

The other key piece to remember about behavior change is that not everyone is ready to change. This is often the case with tobacco users, who don’t want to quit yet even though they know the risks.  One of the most widely used models for behavior change is the Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change, illustrated here.


Based on this model, the action stage is where change happens but there are steps that happen first. This is where awareness and education programs can be key to help individuals understand the habits, motivations, and emotions behind their behavior. Offering programs for employees at the various stages of readiness can help them overcome ambivalence about the behavior or making the change.

Behavior change is not easy. With proper consideration for the readiness and interests of your employees, you can create programs that will help them achieve lasting changes toward a healthier lifestyle.

Topics: Worksite Wellness, Wellbeing, Worksite Culture, worksite wellbeing, workplace wellbeing, workplace culture, behavioral science, employee benefits, hr, behavior change, employee well-being, human resources, workplace wellness

Mari Ryan

Written by Mari Ryan

Mari Ryan is the CEO/founder of AdvancingWellness and is a recognized expert in the field of workplace well-being strategy.