Home > Employee Benefits > Motivation – tough to achieve, hard to maintain, critical for success

Motivation – tough to achieve, hard to maintain, critical for success

It’s mid-January, and how many of you have broken your New Year’s Resolution, if you even made one? Do you find the whole idea of a New Year’s resolution to be helpful – or an easily broken promise to ourselves? Does such a pact motivate you?

Most of us need  motivation to change or to stick with a plan, and Americans have an abundance of choices presented to us every day: Eat the doughnut or the oatmeal for breakfast (or just skip it entirely). Go for a walk after dinner or watch TV. Schedule a physical or don’t take the time off from work, school, life. What motivates us and how can employers tap into that?

Most successful companies are good at leading their people to achieve organizational goals. The motivation can be promotions, sense of achievement, more money – or just keeping our jobs. There is a big divide, though, between those companies that have successfully motivated their people to change unhealthy behaviors (or maintain healthy ones) and those that are not successful. The resulting Return on Investment in wellness can be just as varied. For too many companies, a wellness initiative looks like this:

People are motivated in different ways, but recent studies continue to tie the common sense idea that many of us are motivated by money, whether it’s given to them or taken away. As part of our Engage in Health strategy, we talk to clients about the need to use every tool they have available to engage their people, get their attention. Many of these “tools” are economic: incentives for achievement, penalties for failure to participate, health plan contribution differentials, plan eligibility changes, plan designs created to encourage consumerism. A team of Yale University economists created a website, www.stickk.com, to set and track health goals, but also as a means to study behavior. They found that 72% of people that had a financial penalty tied to their commitment successfully met their goal versus 29% who had no financial penalty. For employers, a similar tactic may be communicating to employees that their insurer has a Health Risk Assessment and encouraging them to take it versus tying completion of the HRA to contributions for health insurance. The later tactic will result in much higher participation.

A recent book by John Tierney and Roy Baumeister, “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength”, noted a very real physical and mental aspect to motivation and willpower, and the decline in motivation they term “Ego Depletion” that can happen without having structure. They found that most of us need help to maintain our willpower, our motivation, and they lay out 7 strategies to follow:

  1. Set a Single, Clear, Specific Goal – Instead of saying “Exercise more” commit to walking 30 minutes after dinner on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Keep the goals simple to start. Our Engage in Health strategy encourages clients to start small and ramp up over time: focus on 1 – 3 conditions in the first year, try a couple of activities, etc.
  2. Pre-commit – Plan your meals for the week on Sunday afternoon. Put on your calendar the days and times you will go to the gym. If you make a plan, it’s easier to stick to. Our Engage in Health strategy seeks to ensure that people who need planning tools have easy access to them.
  3. Outsource Support – Not everyone can maintain motivation alone, and we find that many clients recognize the value of internal support through wellness committees, work friends and influential employees but also external support from professional wellness coaches. For many clients, investing with the right organization that can provide effective coaching is a very good use of limited budgets.
  4. Track Your Progress –  Today, technology has provided a wealth of tools to track our fitness goals and progress. Web and smartphone apps are abundant, and most wellness vendors provide some form of tracking tools. Garmin computer watches can map a run, a bike ride, and can track over 40 different measures including power wattage, speed, distance and cadence and downloads results to the web via USB connection. For others, there are tools on nutrition, exercise, stress reduction, weight loss, health information and just about anything you want to track. But the biggest part is that it helps you measure progress or can motivate someone through competition, such as a team walking challenge like we did at WGA in the fall.
  5. Accept Occasional Lapses – It’s tough to be monastic; we’re only human. Tierney and Baumeister noted the diet effect called “counter-regulatory eating” whereby someone on a diet has one bad meal or day and gives up entirely. Our Engage in Health approach recognizes that sometimes we all want a cheeseburger or to spend the day watching football and eating junk food. The key is to accept this happens and to look to tomorrow because…
  6. Wait Until Tomorrow – An effective strategy for some people is to reward themselves later for today’s behavior. While this does not give us the freedom to gorge ourselves with whatever we want after each workout, don’t deprive yourself now and then of your favorite foods, just don’t go overboard.
  7. Reward Often – Willpower and motivation can act on both denial and reward, and our Engage in Health philosophy is more supportive of the growing area of points based rewards for behaviors rather than one time incentives. People can be more regularly motivated if they feel like they are getting something for every little positive behavior, and a lot of small rewards can add up. Neuroscience researcher Moshe Bar at Harvard University Medical School has noted how neurotransmitters (such as endorphins) can hurt our resolve because they want constant rewards – a cigarette, ice cream – “American Idol” – but he also noted that we can replace those bad habits with other forms of rewards if it stimulates that part of our brain.

In addition to the strategies that Tierney and Baumeister laid out, here are  a few more.

  • People are Motivated by Their Family, Friends and Co-Workers – The world-famous Framingham Health Study has looked at the impact of social networks on behavior and found a direct link to healthy (and unhealthy) behaviors by our peer group and our own behaviors. If your friends smoke, for example, you are much more likely to smoke A recent Boston Globe article  on Reebok, headquartered in Canton, MA, described how successful their CrossFit™ training regimen (check this out) has been with their own employees. The article proved how influential encouragement among employees can be, especially when people encouraged their work friends to join them in CrossFit™ classes.  It became a communal effort, a group effort, and that motivated people to continue.
  • Make the Entry Point Easy – The CrossFit™ approach is also  flexible, and can be adapted for people just starting out a routine or those who are in peak condition, even though the videos look pretty intense. Many of us find just starting out daunting, so we believe it’s important to make getting started relatively easy. Then, build from there.
  • A Hierarchical Culture Responds to Management – In many organizations, such as WGA, senior management can motivate people through simple messages, but it can be tough to maintain motivation purely from management. Our Engage in Health approach, though, sees senior management leadership as one of the most important critical success factors for any health improvement initiative. A joint study last year by the Health Enhancement Research Organization and Mercer found that 66% of employers with “strong” leadership support reported health risk improvements versus only 26% improvement if there is little or no support.
  • Understand and Accept Differing Motivation Levels – I don’t believe in one incentive alone with create the behavior change employers want, such as only providing a gift card for doing an activity. Employers need to use different motivators to impact as many people as possible, because what motivates me, doesn’t work for Melissa and what works for her doesn’t work for John. And no one – no one! – can achieve 100% participation. There will always be someone if the organization is big enough that just chooses not to get on board.

Like the title says, motivating people with health risks to change is critical for the success of any program. Our Engage in Health team talks about how a group will vary, and frequently, the healthiest people need the least motivation. We’re self-directed and frequently find that incentives are free cash. It’s the people with moderate risk factors and lack the motivation to change.

So, what are you doing to motivate your people to get healthier?

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William Gallagher Associates is a leading provider of insurance brokerage, risk management and employee benefits services to firms with complex risks and dynamic needs, within industries that include technology, life sciences, financial risks, health care, renewable energy & clean technology, and environmental services. WGA has offices in Boston, MA; New York, NY; Hartford, CT; Princeton, NJ; Columbia, MD; and Atlanta, GA.

  1. February 6, 2012 at 6:58 am

    Tracking progress is perhaps one of the most important parts of maintaining motivation. Actually seeing yourself progress is hoighly motivational even if the end goal has not yet been achieved.

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