Wellness: Help Employees Form Good Habits

Posted: August 31, 2023  

Many in Human Resources talk about talent management in abstract terms but much of it has to do with helping people with habit formation. Indeed, HR can teach people to develop patterns of behavior that will contribute to the success of the individual and the organization. They can work with individuals and teams to ensure these good habits form over time.

Anastasia Buyalskaya, Assistant Professor of Marketing at HEC Paris, recently talked to HR Exchange Network about her research related to habit formation. The findings can assist HR professionals as they seek to offer employees the necessary tools for creating a healthy life and the means to achieve positive business outcomes. This study is a revelation because it undoes some of the myths about good and bad habits. It relates to the book Atomic Habits, which was on the 2022 HR Summer Reading list and is worth revisiting now.

Is It Possible for Employees to Form Good Habits?

In the meantime, discover what Buyalskaya shared about this study and helping people deploy positive patterns of behavior:

HREN: Briefly describe in easy-to-understand language the study and explain the connection between machine learning and habit formation.

AB: The study conducted by behavioral scientists at HEC Paris, Caltech, University of Chicago, and the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania challenges the commonly held belief that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. In fact, the researchers found that there is no “magic number” of days required to form a habit. The time it takes to develop a habit depends on various factors, such as the behavioral domain – for example, a simple motor habit will take a shorter period of time than a complex habit which requires planning. The study also looked at how individuals respond to changes in rewards. The study revealed that once a habit is formed, individuals are less likely to respond to changes in rewards than those who have yet to create a habit.

HREN: What are the big takeaways?

AB: The big takeaways from the study are that there is no fixed number of days required to form a habit, and the time it takes varies depending on factors like behavior complexity. Contrary to the popular belief that it takes 21 days, the study found that it takes approximately two weeks or nine to 10 shifts for a habit to form (hand sanitizing, for example). However, forming a habit of going to the gym takes much longer, on the order of several months.

HREN: Why is this good information for those in Human Resources to have? 

AB: This information is valuable for those in Human Resources because it provides a more nuanced understanding of habit formation in real-world scenarios. HR professionals can use this knowledge to design effective strategies for promoting healthy habits among employees. Secondly, the study suggests that it is easier to motivate individuals who have not yet formed a habit, highlighting the importance of early intervention. HR teams can focus on incentivizing and encouraging employees to adopt healthy habits soon after they join the company before these routines become ingrained.

HREN: What kinds of practices could we recommend to those in HR trying to help their workforce? 

AB: To help their workforce, HR professionals could recommend practices such as implementing reward systems, providing education and training on healthy habits, and creating a supportive environment that encourages behavior change. Offering financial or social incentives to develop healthy behaviors early on in an employee’s journey with a company may be particularly effective at kick-starting habit formation. Secondly, HR can promote awareness and education about habit formation, helping employees understand that it is a process that varies depending on the behavior and individual.

HREN: Is there anything else you’d like to share? If so, what? 

AB: A machine learning technique was used in the study. Machine learning is very useful for analyzing and interpreting large amounts of data on human behavior. HR professionals may also consider building up data science capabilities to apply some of these machine learning algorithms to their own datasets and therefore be able to study habit formation and uncover other patterns of behavior among their employees.

By Francesca DiMeglio

Originally posted on HR Exchange Network