By Mike Robinson
We face thousands of decisions every day. Some are very small and some overwhelming. Others just seem hard to navigate. To reach a ‘good’ decision, we have to interpret and evaluate a lot of information. Often, however, people are quite irrational when making choices. So, how can people at work be helped to make better decisions around their own – and colleagues’ – health, safety, and well-being?
An approach increasingly being used to change and influence people’s behaviour is known as Nudge Theory. Marketers have been drawing on this for many years, but the nudge theory can equally be applied to workplace health, safety and wellbeing. So, how does nudge theory work? A behavioral “nudge” is a way to gently lead people into making better decisions by offering prompts that help in making those decisions.
One type of nudge would be painting footprints on the floor which lead to a set of recycling bins or putting social distancing markers on the ground, as we did in the pandemic. A behavioral nudge can also work by using the argument that ‘everyone else is doing it. For example, many people make bad decisions simply because they do not want to stand out from the crowd. Or, by offering simple peer comparisons, companies can influence a customer to choose them instead.
Behavioral nudges in the workplace can subtly point people towards a safer option. In high-risk businesses like construction, they can be used to foster a culture of safety. For example, at a construction site, an engineering and design consultancy placed small mirrors at entrances with the message: “Who is responsible for safety today?”
When an employer insists on staff doing mandatory health and safety training, most will complete it. But some will often delay. Implementing disciplinary action may prove counter-productive, so consider using messages like ‘almost everyone has already completed the training, please make sure you do as well. You may be surprised by how much more effective this can be.
Companies can use the nudge theory at the workplace to achieve a zero-accident culture. For example, you could use a scoreboard to track monthly progress. Using simple traffic lights -red, green, or amber – next to an action signaling if it is on track and what’s needed to improve – can be very effective. People are more likely to avoid losses as they are to secure gains. This is why a message that says ‘not adhering to safety procedures can result in injury or death is likely to persuade more people to follow protocols in order to avoid accidents.
A nudge makes it more likely that an individual will behave in a particular way or make a particular choice to drive the desired change. Influencing people to make more appropriate choices, rather than mandating behaviors at work, can lead to much more lasting changes in everything from health and safety to wellbeing. In the long run, simply mandating something can be counter-productive, and people can react in different ways to the same piece of information depending on how it is presented.
Behavioural nudges can also be used to promote worker health. Placing nutritious foods within easy reach at the front of a counter in the work canteen can encourage healthier choices. This in turn can support well-being and help workers to manage long-term health conditions, such as diabetes. The way we describe something also has a bearing on whether it is perceived as desirable or not. For example, the food described as ‘99 percent fat-free’ is perceived more favourably than food which ‘contains one percent of fat’.
Behavioural nudges should be ‘low in effort yet highly rewarding’. We are all twice as motivated to avoid a loss as we are to try and make a gain. This is why a message that talks about how not sticking to safety procedures can result in injury or death is more likely to lead to compliance to avoid accidents. Whether your goal is more revenue or encouraging employee collaboration, improved safety or wellbeing, nudges are a low-effort, high-reward way of making that happen. If this does not form part of your current regime, I encourage you to try implementing a behaviour- based safety approach. But it needs careful understanding, planning and implementation to make it a success.
(The author is CEO, British Safety Council. Views expressed are personal)