How to build better workplace habits and behaviors

ShowUp Team | Published: June 4, 2020
Workplace Culture

Emily used to be a mess ..

Two years ago she was involved in a traumatic car accident that left her with two damaged discs in her back. Now, sitting for any length of time leaves her with uncomfortable pain that seems to be getting worse. She is a software developer for a well-established cloud-based software provider, and like most people who work at a desk, she sits seven hours a day; even more, if there is a deadline on the horizon.

Every day, Emily suffers in silence as she works away on her projects. The pain at times distracts her from her work, but she carries on. Recently, she sought help from a chiropractor to see if anything can be done to help alleviate the pain. Along with the help of the chiropractor, they determined that a stand-up desk at work would help strengthen the muscles that surround her back.

Fortunately, Emily works for a very progressive company, and they didn't have any issue fitting her with a good quality standing desk. With a flick of a switch, she can elevate and lower her desk in a few seconds. With her as inspiration, the company also opened the floor for anyone else in the company to request a standing desk.

In total, nine staff members received brand new standing desks, including Emily.

At first, Emily wasn't all that motivated to stand very much at work. She would start her day off standing, but by her first coffee break, she was back to sitting down and remained that way for the rest of her work day. Her back pain, while diminished, still plagued her, especially in the afternoon.

A couple of months after receiving her new desk, Emily went for a follow-up appointment with her chiropractor. While still experiencing some back pain, the chiropractor reminded her that the discs in her back could face further damage if she didn't focus more on standing at work. By standing, she would have to build up her core muscles enough to take the burden off her damaged back. With a renewed sense of urgency, Emily came back to work the next morning with a new focus on changing her behavior.

Hire amazing people and inspire them to grow and embrace change.

Emily set a timer on her phone that would remind her to sit down and stand up at preset intervals. After a month of this new routine, Emily began to feel the effects of standing up. Her knees and feet hurt (in a good way) from the additional standing. Her back was feeling stronger, and the pain that she had was fading. While she did have a few setbacks over the coming months, she did improve on her habit of standing at her desk.

After six months, Emily stood-up at her desk for almost all of her workday. Sitting at her desk became foreign to her. She even went so far as to get rid her comfortable ergonomic chair. Opting instead to sit on an exercise ball during her brief sitting periods. She didn't find much comfort in sitting on the exercise ball, so her sitting on it became very short.

It took time and effort, but Emily successfully got away from her once destructive sitting behavior. Over time she began to notice other great side-effects from regular standing. Emily's posture noticeably changed and she saw her legs and knees were growing stronger as well. Emily's new habit is leading her to improve many other areas of her life. She now has more confidence, lives pain-free, and she could never see herself sitting at a desk all day ever again. On top of it all, she has become a much more productive worker as she no longer gets tired in the afternoon and she is no longer concerned about her back pain.

We all share some commonality with Emily. There are changes in our lives that we struggle to implement. Some of us don't understand the process of getting started. We either lose interest or lose the desire to move. Even when it comes to a life-saving change, we can sometimes play with fire right up until we are forced to move, and sometimes that isn't enough.

What are the stages of behavior change? Professors James O. Prochaska and Carlo Di Clemente of the University of Rhode Island developed the trans-theoretical model of behavior change based on analysis and use of different theories of psychotherapy.

We can change culture if we change behavior

Broken down and related to our friend Emily, here are the stages of behavior change:

Precontemplation ("not ready") - Even though Emily's work gave her a standing desk, she didn't put much importance on her need to fix her back. While her back was getting a little better, the change in her health was not enough to make her move towards a complete "sit-free" day. She wasn't ready to commit to it full time.

Contemplation ("getting ready") - While she did stand at her desk a lot more than before, Emily's continuing back pain led her to go to the chiropractor a second time. After the visit, she understood that if she didn't change, her back problems could become permanent. She could now see that she needed to make the change to have any chance at a pain-free life.

Preparation ("ready") - Upon her realization that she has to make a change, she installed an app on her phone to remind her to sit and stand at predetermined intervals. This small act was her move to be ready to take on her new change finally.

Action ("current action") - Since she adapted to her new habit of standing and was noticing the improvements of doing so, she improved on it by getting rid of her comfortable chair in favor of a ball. This action improved her chances of continuing her change.

Maintenance ("monitoring") - Now that Emily has been working while standing up for over six months, she now thoroughly understands the importance of the new habit. She now watches for when she is sitting too much, and without a comfortable chair to sit on, she is no longer enticed to go back to her old habit.

Termination - Even though the healing in her back has completed, she now sees the benefits of standing in her legs, knees and posture. Standing every day at work has now become the new norm for Emily, and she could never see herself tempted in going back to sitting.

Maintaining an effective culture is so important that it, in fact, trumps even strategy.

While not an official stage of the transtheoretical model of behavior change, relapse is also a reality in the process of change. Relapse happens when an individual falls back to stages before the "Action" stage, and they have to regain the confidence and support to get back. Had Emily not made the minor adjustments of her habits by installing the app on her phone or getting rid of her chair, she may have fallen back and never regained her momentum to change.

Making behavior changes in our lives is always tough. Most often, we do not even know we are doing the things we do. Smokers smoke even though they know that what they are doing might eventually kill them. People overeat even though they know that their habit can lead to morbid obesity. Emily knew that by sitting, her back would hurt, but she found comfort in her chair and standing up at her new desk just wasn't a priority.

Understanding where you are in change might help give you some insight on how far you have to go, or how far you have come to instilling habits that will help you be the better you. Realizing that relapse is part of the process also gives some comfort that while you may have fallen back a stage or two in your progress, you can quickly get back to action.

What habits or behaviors are you trying to instill in your life?

Where are you in that process?

How transparent is your organization? Find out what they think.

Measure and know where to improve your team culture so that everyone enjoys showing up to work.

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