To unlock the secret to healthier employees, lean into human nature

Mind, body, spreadsheets.
Mind, body, spreadsheets.
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Healthy habits don’t form themselves. Left to our own devices, human beings don’t always make the best decisions for our health. When it comes to the day-to-day rhythm of working life, healthcare isn’t the kind of thing that finds its way into the workplace on its own. If and how people engage in workplace wellness is a matter of accessibility and thoughtful program design. Employers should approach health and choice in the workplace by being mindful of human nature, and putting forth the best interests of employees. From there, they can create an experience that guides employees to make healthy decisions.

Why should employers care? Healthy employees benefit employers tremendously. Perhaps most importantly, healthy people tend to be more productive, present, and engaged at work. The problem isn’t that humans don’t know what’s good for them: we have the basic outline for health. We know that walking is better than driving, and we’re better off reaching for a carrot than a cookie. Yet, the short-term gratification of unhealthy choices—pleasure and satiety—are more enticing than healthy ones, which may take years to be seen and felt.

These “incentive conflicts” reveal the tension that makes it difficult for humans to choose the best thing. “It’s particularly hard for people to make good decisions when they have trouble translating the choices they face into the experiences they will have” say Richard H. Thaler (recent Nobel laureate) and Cass R. Sunstein, authors of Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Thaler and Sunstein argue that “choice architecture”, or the designated organizational context in which people make decisions, can go a long way in prompting people to make better decisions. This is especially true when we realize that people tend to go with the default option.

In an office setting, choice architecture might mean putting healthy snack options at employee eye and reach level, or creating a seat arrangement designed to make employees take the long route to meeting areas or restrooms. It can also mean enrolling employees, by default, in a heavily-subsidized health program, with the choice to opt out as opposed to relying on them to opt in. These elements don’t require a robust budget, so any size company could presumably adopt them.

Disincentivizing bad habits can also go a long way toward shaping wellness in the workplace. “Craving, it turns out, is what powers a habit” says Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. His premise is that cravings are part of a desire and reward feedback loop in the brain that dictate how our habits are formed.  We get upset when we can’t get the thing we crave and feel rewarded when we can. Our habits are built upon the need for that reward.

By tapping into the basic human instinct to form habits, employers can go a long way in getting their employees healthier.  Employers don’t have to go it alone. For example, Cigna, a global health service company, offers its free  app, Coach by Cigna, which can act as a wellness companion to help employees improve their health. This app gives users a place to engage with their health where they already go: their phones. The app is designed to help users reach weight, exercise, and nutrition goals, and take measures to get better quality sleep.

Let’s face it: as humans we aren’t perfect. No one said free will would be easy, and we don’t always make the most thoughtful choices about our health. The good news is that our employers, with strong partners in health, can guide us in the right direction. The first step is for employers to approach corporate health as “choice architects”, with the health interests of their people in mind. This way, they can provide employees a baseline for healthy decisions and steer them toward healthier choices. It’s just a matter of seeing employees as people.

Discover Coach by Cigna and see how employees can use it to monitor preventive health and wellness goals.

This article was produced on behalf of Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company by Quartz Creative and not by the Quartz editorial staff.