The power of framing: using behavioural science to support employee mental wellbeing

What is behavioural science?

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 heuristics1 and they help us behave more efficiently. Imagine weighing the decision on what cereal to eat as much as you consider what Christmas presents to buy – we wouldn’t get anything done! We simply don’t have the capacity to assess the pros and cons of every decision, every single time.

Heuristics 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. If you have ever wondered why you always forget your diet when you pass a cake store, it’s because the memories of eating a lovely cake is immediate and salient, versus the long-term commitment of better health.

What is framing? Loss vs. Gain

The framing effect2 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. A loss frame is when you highlight what you might lose, or the costs. A gain frame states what you might gain, or the benefits.

Behavioural science has found that individuals are primarily loss averse. We feel our losses more intensely than when we gain something (imagine losing £500 vs. earning £500). According to prospect theory3, when we’re faced with an unfamiliar outcome, we are more likely to take a risk to avoid a loss, but less likely to take a risk when we’re trying to gain something. Part of this is also due to the endowment effect – we attach more value to things we own.

Impacts on health and diseases, and the gap for mental health

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 results4,5. 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. This can take many forms such as increased levels of mental health concerns, stress, burnout, all of which account for long-term absences from work.

This has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, with increased care responsibilities, loss of work-life balance, and feelings of anxiety, isolation and depression.

Lessons from behavioural insights for mental wellbeing

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.

Would they care more about what they will lose if they neglect their mental health? E.g. “Neglecting your mental wellbeing can result in stress and being burnt out.” Or would they be nudged into action more 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 help you perform well.”
What I found was that it’s important to understand that people are motivated by different things. Explicitly stating the risks of ignoring mental health might be motivating for some to take that essential first step. However, others might be more motivated when they understand exactly how they could benefit.

The 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 preventive 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’6 or driven by nurturance and growth, the gain frame will work better. However, if they are ‘prevention focused’6 or concerned by safety and security, the loss frame will work better. This is because they are motivated by different things, and this impacts the kinds of messaging that will be most engaging.

By explicitly stating the benefits and risks of mental healthcare, people understand what to expect, which circumvents the ambiguity bias7 (where we prefer known outcomes over unknown outcomes) and hyperbolic discounting8 (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.

If you’d like to explore any areas discussed in this article, please get in touch:

1. Kahneman, Daniel. “A perspective on judgment and choice: mapping bounded rationality.” American psychologist 58.9 (2003): 697.
2. Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1981). The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. Science, 211(4481), 453-458.
3. Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47, 263–291.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. Cesario, J., Corker, K. S., & Jelinek, S. (2013). A self-regulatory framework for message framing. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(2), 238-249.
7. Ellsberg, Daniel (1961). “Risk, Ambiguity and the Savage Axioms,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 75, 643–669.
8. Rachlin, H., & Green, L. (1972). Commitment, choice and self‐control 1. Journal of the experimental analysis of behavior, 17(1), 15-22.