Harness the Power of Identity to Transform Your Employees’ Health

Want to help your employees improve their health? Appeal to their identity. Researchers at the University of Exeter found that identity – how one thinks about oneself – is a powerful motivator for sustained behavioral change. People want their actions to align with their key beliefs.

According to a study published in Applied Psychology, nurses were more likely to receive flu vaccinations if they strongly identified with their role as a nurse and saw it as their professional duty to do so. This shows that people’s self-perceptions influence their actions. When a smoker begins to call herself (or himself) a nonsmoker, it’s harder to take a smoke break. And once a person identifies as being fit, it’s easier to get motivated for a workout; lying on the couch becomes inconsistent with how she views herself.

So what happens when a person starts to identify as a nonsmoker but continues to smoke? Psychology has a term for this: cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when a person has conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This state causes internal discomfort and motivates a person to restore balance.

There are three ways to restore harmony, for example, in the case of a smoker:

  • Change beliefs, attitudes or behaviors. The smoker either discounts how harmful smoking is and changes her (or his) attitudes about it, or stops smoking.
  • Acquire or discount new information. The smoker chooses to believe that science has yet to prove that smoking causes cancer.
  • Reduce the importance placed on existing beliefs and attitudes. The smoker chooses to believe that while smoking is harmful, you only live once and should do what you enjoy; you can’t possibly avoid every danger in life.

So how can you apply this concept to your workplace? You can prime your employees to be healthy. Priming occurs when exposure to one thing influences a response to another. People are more receptive to a message if they’ve been primed. When you launch a wellness program, think of ways you can prime how your employees view their health. Then design your actual wellness campaign to bring that information into consciousness. For example, if you’re planning to launch a walking program, you can design a prelaunch campaign in which you post images of people walking, posters sharing the benefits of walking, and motivational quotes about topics, such as health and physical activity. That way, when you launch the walking program, your employees are primed; they are more receptive to the idea.

Other ways to prime your workplace behaviors include removing ashtrays from building entrances and filling the work environment with images that encourage a healthy identity, such as posters and inspiring screensavers. You could even hand out removable stickers that employees can place on a mirror at home that say, “I am healthy.” These reminders can help employees focus on this aspect of their identity.

Help your employees internalize a healthy identity; it can have a positive impact on their overall psyche and wellbeing.