Support your employees’ mental wellbeing through behavioural science
Moving past the pandemic
As key rules of the UK’s pandemic response – e.g. work from home guidance and mask wearing in public spaces – are relaxed, coupled with the omicron variant that has a reduced likelihood of serious illness and death amongst the fully vaccinated, there is an increasing sense that we might be over the worst of what Covid-19 has to throw at us. However, there is still the spectre of long-Covid, the impacts of Covid on people with disabilities and underlying conditions, and the significant impacts on the nation’s mental health.
The pandemic pushed organisations to look more closely at their mental health policies and practices than ever before. A study conducted just a month into the pandemic (late April 2020)1 showed that mental health in the UK had deteriorated compared with pre-Covid trends. With severe restrictions on social contact, and access to work and services, it consequently led to increased future insecurity and an unequal distribution of mental health impacts. For example, individuals with high levels of socioeconomic security were more likely to use time saved from their daily commute with their family, and potentially to counter stress. This resulted in new inequalities arising for those already under financial strain. In addition, those without employment at the start of the pandemic, people living with younger children, younger age groups, and women in particular were at a much higher risk of mental distress1.
As we try, individually and collectively, to reclaim as much as we can of the new normal, there must be a renewed focus on employees who face existing and new barriers to their mental wellbeing. The question for us all, as healthcare providers and as employers, is: what can we do to help colleagues access the services they need? We believe that behavioural science can deliver a nudge in the right direction.
Behavioural science and framing
Behavioural science is the science of decision-making. As humans in a fast-paced world, we make thousands of decisions every day, so our brains use shortcuts to get through them all. These mental shortcuts are called heuristics2 and they help us think faster and get more things done. But like all shortcuts, they come with some drawbacks. To make faster decisions we rely on simplifying information and probabilities; this leaves us susceptible to unconscious biases.
Then there is the framing effect3, which is when your behaviour is influenced by the way information is presented. This holds true when two statements that are saying the exact same thing result in completely contradictory choices. For example, framing a medical trial as having only a 10% chance of failure vs. saying the trial has a 90% success rate. Which do you think would make you more likely to sign up? This is known as a ‘loss vs. gain frame’; where a loss frame highlights the costs, and a gain frame states the benefits.
Behavioural science shows that individuals are loss averse. We feel our losses more intensely than our wins. According to prospect theory4, when we’re faced with an unfamiliar outcome, we are more likely to take a risk to avoid a loss, than to gain something.
Loss and gain frames have been studied extensively in medical settings to increase the uptake of measures for disease detection (e.g. breast cancer screening) and disease prevention (e.g. going to your dentist), with mixed results5,6. However, the impact of message framing on mental health and mental wellbeing has been largely overlooked. While employment itself has been linked to happiness, the main risks to employees’ health are psychological in nature. Many of which can account for long-term absences from work. And, as we’ve discussed, this has been exacerbated during the pandemic.
Lessons from behavioural insights
As part of my MSc in Behavioural Science for Management from the University of Stirling in Scotland (2019-2020), I wanted to understand what would motivate employees to take care of their mental health. Do they care more about what they will lose if they neglect their mental health (e.g. neglected mental wellbeing results in stress and burn out), or can they be nudged into action if they understood what they will gain if they take care of their mental health (e.g. paying attention to your mental wellbeing can make you feel relaxed and improve your performance)?
The behavioural science literature shows that if mental healthcare is perceived as a detection tool, the loss frame would work better. This is because there is more risk involved when it’s linked to an unknown outcome (‘What will they find and what could it mean?’). On the other hand, if the service is perceived as a preventative tool, the gain frame might work better because it is seen as a way to counter or avoid risk.
With regard to motivation, if an individual is more ‘promotion focused’ or driven by nurturance and growth, the gain frame works better. However, if they are ‘prevention focused’7 or concerned by safety and security, loss framed messaging is more engaging. Clarity is also important. By explicitly stating the benefits and risks of mental healthcare, people understand what to expect, which circumvents the ambiguity bias8 (where we prefer known outcomes over unknown outcomes) and hyperbolic discounting9 (where we pay more attention to immediate versus long-term outcomes). It also makes relevant information salient, which can not only drive the point home but make sure the information stays top of mind.
As the world returns to work and tries to establish a new normal, the mental wellbeing of colleagues, and their access to support services, should be a top priority for employers. A behavioural science approach is key to managing this transition, and to helping colleagues better manage their own mental health for the long-term.
To discuss how behavioural science can help you to support your colleague, customer or citizen choices around their mental or physical wellbeing, please drop me a line: email@example.com
- Pierce, Matthias, et al. “Mental health before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: a longitudinal probability sample survey of the UK population.” The Lancet Psychiatry 7.10 (2020): 883-892.
- Kahneman, Daniel. “A perspective on judgment and choice: mapping bounded rationality.” American psychologist 58.9 (2003): 697.
- Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1981). The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. Science, 211(4481), 453-458.
- Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47, 263–291.
- O’Keefe, D. J., & Jensen, J. D. (2007). The relative persuasiveness of gain-framed loss-framed messages for encouraging disease prevention behaviors: A meta-analytic review. Journal of health communication, 12(7), 623-644.
- O’Keefe, D. J., & Jensen, J. D. (2009). The relative persuasiveness of gain-framed and loss-framed messages for encouraging disease detection behaviors: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Communication, 59(2), 296-316.
- Cesario, J., Corker, K. S., & Jelinek, S. (2013). A self-regulatory framework for message framing. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(2), 238-249.
- Ellsberg, Daniel (1961). “Risk, Ambiguity and the Savage Axioms,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 75, 643–669.
- Rachlin, H., & Green, L. (1972). Commitment, choice and self‐control 1. Journal of the experimental analysis of behavior, 17(1), 15-22.