Why your people want to get healthy but can’t

Group of young sporty people in ustrasana pose, active, yoga, group

*This article first appeared on Brink News

Anyone who has ever attempted to stick to a fitness routine or cut junk food knows just how hard it is to put an end to bad habits. That’s because bad habits start for a reason, and good intentions alone aren’t enough to deliver significant behaviour change. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that the health of people at work is continuing to deteriorate.

According to the latest Britain’s Healthiest Workplace study, which Mercer founded six years ago with Vitality Health to better understand the impact of employee health on productivity, UK employers are now losing an average of 35.6 days of productive time per person per year, compared to 30.4 days last year.

This sharp increase means that, on average, 13.63% of work time is lost to health-related absence (1.16%) and presenteeism (12.47%), in no small part due to poor lifestyle choices, which most employees don’t even realise are impacting negatively on their ability to perform at work. This year’s data reveals that two-thirds of people (65%) are not eating healthily, more than 44% report problems with the quality of their sleep, and 37% of people get fewer than seven hours of sleep per night.

This is hugely detrimental to the ability of people to perform at work, because if we don’t fuel our bodies correctly or give ourselves respite we need to recover, we become more accident-prone, less creative, more irritable, less collaborative, and much less engaged and effective at what we’re doing. 

Mental wellbeing also continues to undermine employee effectiveness, with 58% of people saying they are negatively impacted by work-related stress, compared to 54% last year.

Why the desire to get healthy isn’t enough

The genuine desire of people to get healthy isn’t translating into results. As observed by the University College London (UCL’s) model for behaviour change, the desire to get healthy isn’t enough. Instead, there are three necessary conditions that all need to be in place for genuine behaviour change to take place: capability, motivation and opportunity.

In practice, this means that if employees want to eat healthily but don’t have time to buy or prepare healthy meals, they won’t have the opportunity to eat well. If they want to improve their mental health but inadvertently continue to do things that undermine this, they won’t be able to boost their emotional wellbeing until they develop that capability. And if they want to use the gym but are hesitant to go because everyone there is already fit and toned, their motivation to work out will be diminished. 

Positive impact on productivity

Fortunately, employers that apply the science of behaviour change to their wellbeing programmes can dramatically increase people’s chances of converting good intentions into actions that help them lead healthier lives and there are significant business benefits too. When we compare the top 5 performing companies in the latest Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey to the average company 11.5 days of productive time per employee could be saved by improving the health of an average workforce. That equates to employing another five people per 100 people already employed. 

The psychology of behaviour change

Often cited as the “holy grail” of wellbeing, behaviour change is the key to creating wellbeing programmes that have impact.

Take the example of Tim, a 32-year-old man who is suffering low mood and bouts of depression giving way to one-off absences. He has access to confidential mental health services through work that could help. But does he have the opportunity, capability or motivation to get better?

Unfortunately, he doesn’t. He isn’t motivated to use the mental health services, as he thinks he will eventually start to feel better of his own accord and is worried about what his manager or colleagues might think if they found out he was talking to a counsellor. 

Fortunately for Tim, his employer has just adopted a behaviour-change model of wellbeing and now understands the importance of addressing these underlying issues in the following ways: 


Motivating people to get healthy

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of any behaviour change programme is motivating people to let go of unhealthy habits.

Even when people are provided with the capability and opportunity to behave in healthy ways, many of us still revert to unhealthy habits. We leave healthy food to rot in the fridge and order a takeaway or heat up an easy-to-prepare pizza or microwave meal instead.

The simple fact is that our motivation to behave healthily isn’t strong enough on its own. In order to address this, employers need to give greater consideration to how they can strengthen people’s resolve by helping them to create compelling underlying reasons for delivering behaviour change. 

People who go to the gym to feel good are much more likely to keep going than people who sign up for more superficial reasons, such as losing weight or looking good – because lessons learnt from psychology of happiness tell us that we need to find a way of enjoying the journey as well as the outcome. So if the gym is not for you, maybe you prefer walking or hiking and so on. 

Emotional drivers

Prior to starting any wellbeing initiative, it’s important to help people identify deep and meaningful reasons to change their behaviour. It’s also important to put mechanisms in place to help employees stay connected to these goals, such as the desire to be there for their children as they grow up or to maintain their health so that they can live out their dreams to travel the world in later life.

As the philosopher Baruch Spinoza recognised as early as the 17th century, long before Freud and modern psychology came into being, we cannot change by intellectual insight alone. These insights must be accompanied by strong emotions for change to actually take place. 

Utilising the power of habits

Instead of expecting people to rely on willpower, employers can harness the power of automatic thought to help employees make achieving their goals easy.

It’s easier to go to the gym at the same time every morning than it is to go once a month or at a random time. That’s because the more we do something at the same time every day, or every week, the more it becomes an instinctive habit: something we automatically want to do or even feel compelled to do.

Managers have a critical role to play in reinforcing healthy habits, such as setting examples by leaving work on time, taking proper breaks, stopping for lunch or utilising wellbeing facilities provided. 


The health of people in the workplace is continuing to deteriorate, with unhealthy eating habits, sleep issues and work-related stress continuing to rise and impact negatively on productivity. Employers that are serious about improving employee wellbeing and performance can no longer afford to ignore the importance of incorporating the need for behaviour change into their wellbeing programmes.

Critical to achieving this is looking at the underlying issues prohibiting people from looking after themselves and using this to strategically design wellbeing initiatives that give people the capability, opportunity and motivation to succeed. 

Wolfgang Seidl
by Wolfgang Seidl

EMEA Health Management Leader, Mercer Marsh Benefits