Nudging Revisited

Resetting the Narrative

Traditionally, behavioral nudges are understood to be choice architectures that encourage specific actions. The Stockholm piano stairs, for example, made it enjoyable for people to walk and make music rather than take the elevator 1. The Schiphol fly urinal reduced spillage by 80% and cleaning costs by 8% by giving gentlemen something to aim at 2.

Within organizations, nudging often manifests as wellness incentives focused primarily on physical health, such as placing one common printer in the office hallway to prompt walking 3, offering financial incentives to stop smoking or providing free gym membership and lunchtime yoga classes.

But Covid has shown us that nurturing mental and emotional health, not just the body, maintains and even increases performance. This new wellbeing narrative addresses the emotional necessity of feeling heard, included and valued and it must now be embedded in the strategic narrative of the organization. Companies must find ways to engage the individual on a deeper personal level, or talent will walk 4.

Wellness is Emotional Not Just Physical

Before the pandemic, research revealed 45% of budget increases were allocated to mental and emotional wellbeing programs 4. As social distancing restrictions forced a mass shift to remote work, mental health became a key priority for leaders, managers and employees. While some have thrived working from home, many have been overwhelmed in isolation. Others experienced the trauma of losing a loved one or their livelihood.

In a Crisis, There Are Only Heroes

On the whole, most companies have done a good job of addressing the basic needs of safety, stability and security.

Starbucks gave their employees access to 20 free sessions with a mental health therapist. Members of the Clearvision HR team took a mental health first-aid course. Unilever launched a 14-day mental wellbeing resilience program for its 62 thousand global employees. Goldman Sachs gave all employees an extra 10 days of family leave to cover looking after sick loved ones or homeschooling children 5.

But post Covid, will this emergency-primed response continue as we emerge into the challenges of the new narrative of changing routines and ongoing uncertainty? A Gartner survey of HR leaders found only a quarter of companies that offered wellbeing programs during the pandemic plan to continue them 6. Plans need to change.

Where Wellbeing is Concerned, One Size Fits No One

From this point forward, companies are going to have to shift from a wellness product to a wellness portfolio that includes more flexible options and benefits to retain their talent 7. This means offering more than a free download to a mindfulness app and a push notification to join the live daily workout. A wider range of services, such as counseling sessions and coaching, financial and developmental advice and flexible workloads will need to be made available.

Companies must now approach their employees like customers, as each employee has unique wellness needs

Holistic Solutions: Close the Gap by Aligning Purpose to Wellbeing

According to McKinsey research, an effective wellness portfolio must include a stable and secure work experience with trusting relationships, a feeling of social cohesion and inclusion, fair treatment, non-financial recognition, respectful colleagues and a work-life balance that personally aligns to organizational purpose and values 4.

Across all the author’s research, this was the most consistent message: When we are living our purpose at work, we are more effective, more engaged and in some reports, experience five times higher wellbeing.

How can organizations leverage this new information?

Are Sharing and Listening the New Nudge?

In bringing people together for any narrative shift or cultural change, all individuals involved must take ownership in driving the process.

But when approaching the subject of aligning purpose to wellbeing, the voice of the employee becomes even more imperative. An organization will move in the direction of the questions that their leaders and employees ask, so there must be space made for all voices and stories.

Stories Are the New Nudges

Neuroscience reveals that, like nudges, stories bypass the conscious rational brain and reach the emotional, decision-making part to offer a blueprint for action. They allow listeners to engage, process and choose for themselves whether to absorb and adopt the same behavior.

With that in mind, we see that the most compelling action leaders can take is modeling desired behaviors themselves.

It’s the job of the leader to direct attention, and drawing attention to their own emotion and mood is known to influence, motivate and drive results from those around them. Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis call this emotional contagion 8.

If the individual voice is imperative, leaders must be cognizant of what their own voices are saying. They must keep investing in the language of Appreciative Inquiry (a method of asking questions that lead to a self-determined positive change) 9, demonstrate compassionate behavior instead of celebrating overwork and actively share their personal engagement in wellness.

Many CEOs have spoken about the shift to communicating on a more emotional, empathetic level, and, although initially reluctant to share personal information, have been positively surprised that bringing more of themselves into the workplace has created connection and motivation 10.

Paul Tufano, CEO of AmeriHealth Caritas, sums it up for many: ‘The more honest and human you are with them, the more trust and empathy they lend to you. They understand you better. That gives you the ability to do so much more, as people give you the benefit of the doubt.’ 10

The compassionate leader will not just share but listen, allow and hold space for someone else’s narrative so they too can feel heard and their experiences valued.

Nudge Up

Employees must seize these opportunities to share their own stories around alignment and work-life balance, and they must champion the behavior of leaders and colleagues who start conversations around remote working plans. We need to entertain more challenging questions around company policy. Will you force workers to choose between home and office, and will that depend on their performance at either location? Will there be compensations for additional costs to WFH? What is being done about the transparency of check-in systems?

And can flexible working hours be changed in response to another wave of homeschooling, the unexpected arrival of unemployed offspring or the sudden burden of parental care?

It turns out employees, via questions and stories, have powerful stakeholder influence on when and how they return to work. And giving them that voice and sense of empowerment is the key to making them feel psychologically safe, mentally connected and inherently valued.

Time to Think

Speaking to The Habtic Standard, Margie Jarvis, Advisory Board Member at yWe Media, is currently working with frontline hospital staff to utilize pathways technology to put employees in charge of tailoring interventions that mirror individual and evolving needs.

“What has not been built into leadership practice before, is giving people time and space to process what’s gone on for them individually. We can’t make organizational progress unless people have space and time to understand themselves.”

In confidential 1:1 meetings, maintain the dialogues that tackle difficult subjects like re-establishing KPIs for performance and development and promotion trajectories 11. Take into consideration specific individual needs, again, much as you would with a customer. Even if the stigma of sharing mental stress is lifted, how does it support an employee’s wellbeing if their workload itself is not reduced?

It’s no longer a closed HR conversation but a whole company dialogue.

Technology is the Answer?

McKinsey research advises leaders and performance managers to adapt by using technology that will continue building relationships and support transition to new ways of working and interacting 4.

The virtual platforms set up to communicate and connect during Covid (such as the town halls, listening tours and podcast interviews) play a huge role in continuing the display of humanity and open dialogue needed to establish the psychological safety for individuals to express their needs.

The flattening of hierarchies that resulted from Zoom meetings and Mentimeter polls for example, means there is no head of the table, and the chat function allows previously quiet voices an equal opportunity to express themselves.

An employee pulse survey is an easy way to encourage expression. It is a fast and frequent survey system, intentionally designed to be done weekly, to give quick insight into the health of a company.

Studies have proven that if someone was asked about a particular topic weekly, the habit-forming nature of this activity leads to more awareness of the topic during the other six days of the week 12. Repetitive questions over a longer period of time have even been proven to be an effective method of forming positive habits.

So perhaps your survey questions will nudge wellbeing by asking each time: Have you filled in your satisfaction survey for your happiness coach? Have you journaled your mindful reflection achievements for the week?

Dark Nudging

Technology has played a big part in bringing people together, and it could play a part in nudging our future wellbeing with the likes of social media push notifications, or AI-prompted questions such as Instagram’s, ‘Are you sure you want to post?’ 13. Once again we find that asking the right question at the right time is a powerful tool for change, whether for good or otherwise.

For now we are safe from the more sinister nudges of company-sponsored sleep apps and smart homes that passively track our work activity, but it’s not hard to imagine technology moving in this dark direction. In fact, 2021 is expected to bring new regulations that put limits on what employers can monitor to balance employee privacy and technology 14.


As we emerge post Covid, smiley stickers on the bathroom mirror and AI desks that ask now and then, ‘Do you want me to move to the standing position?’ are not enough to meet the challenge and corporate responsibility to engage more deeply with employees’ wellbeing.

If we don’t know what the future of work is really going to entail, employers and employees have a joint responsibility to continue asking the right questions and challenge the story they tell themselves about what a holistic wellbeing strategy means.

Picture of Grainne Delaney

Grainne Delaney

Grainne Delaney uses her Masters degree in Psychology to support the performance of executive teams. For the last 20 years she has been involved designing and delivering specialist programs and creative solutions to epic problems; Storytelling for Innovation at KPMG; Masterclass in global pitching & proposals; One Story strategy for ABF-ABNAmro Management Team, and Leadership Legacy for Vodaphone Ziggo.


Share this article and let us know what you think. We're here to help and answer any questions you might have. Any suggestions or feedback? Let us know what you think and we will use your input for the future improvements.

Contact us

Join us

The return to journalism, the pursuit of truth and the utmost respect for solid, peer-reviewed science. You're just one click away from receiving the best of The Habtic Standard straight to your inbox. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter now and keep up to date with the latest corporate wellbeing insights from our experts around the globe.