On new and healthy habits

hand washing

Managers need to explain the rationale for change, and offer an alternative to existing behaviors.

As we return to a new working routine under the threat of Covid, we need to develop new habits that prevent the spread of the virus: practicing social distancing, frequent hand washing, avoiding touching the face, etc.

Developing and maintaining such new habits are critical for keeping employees safe but changing existing habits and learning new ones is very challenging, especially in health-related contexts. Even among people with a risk for heart failure, research found that only 20% (!) adopted healthier dietary habits, started exercising, and stopped smoking.

What can we learn from research?

Habits are automatic behavioral reactions to a situation. They are established by repetitive behavior. A study found that in order to turn behavior into a habit, the behavior had to be repeated 18-254 times, and 66 times on average. Repetition creates an association between the situation and the behavior, which fixates the behavior in our memory. The more the habit is established and requires no conscious effort, the more it is harder to change it through external forces.

Research shows that rewarding positive behavior and/or punishing negative behavior is not enough to turn a behavior into habit. A constructive alternative should also be offered. In the UK, for example, the authorities are trying to get the public to avoid touching their face - which people do 15-25 times an hour. To do so, it was decided not only to send a message about what "not to do" but offer an alternative behavior: highlighting the value of keeping one’s hands in one’s pockets.

Another way to create new habits is to change the consumption or working environment such that it encourages new behaviors. In the context of the desire to encourage handwashing, a study used simple and cheap visual markings - arrows on a public restrooms floor that aim at the sinks - successfully increasing by 15% the use of soap with 19,000 participants.

And if you want to make employees eat healthier? A study in a hospital cafeteria (with about 6,500 transactions a day) for about 2 years found that reorganizing the healthier foods such that their presentation is more prominent and adding color tags representing different levels of health (green = healthy, red = unhealthy) positively changed dietary habits: leading to a 9% reduction in purchase of unhealthy beverages and 4% of unhealthy food items, while increasing purchase of healthy drinks (8%) and healthy food items (5%).

People are a social species and greatly influenced by others. It is therefore useful to position any message aiming at habit development or change such it emphasizes that "most of the people are already doing it". Research has shown that when you want to promote pro-environmental behavior, for example, re-using towels in hotels - a message indicating that guests who shared the same room re-used their towels - led to a 40% increase in patrons’ re-using their towels.


In a period characterized by significant uncertainty, people seek answers and look up to their leaders for guidance. Such guidance should be openly and frequently communicated, and be clear and consistent.

As a manager, if you want to establish new habits in the workplace that are lasting, explain the rationale for change, and offer an alternative to existing behaviors.Change the environment to encourage the new behavior.Share an encouraging message that many of the employees around you are adopting the new behavior and of course demonstrate how you have adopted the new behavior as a role model. People look at you all the time, especially when you don't pay attention.

Professor Amir Grinstein studies and teaches pro-social marketing and entrepreneurship at Northeastern Universities in Boston and VU in Amsterdam. He writes on Twitter about behavioral research @AmirGrinstein

Yana Shechterman is an organizational consultant, executive coach, and part-time lecturer at Northeastern University in Boston. On Twitter @shechterman

hand washing
hand washing
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