Technology-Driven Behavior Change

By: Mackenzie Wilson, Contributor

photo courtesy SafeStart International

When I was a child (nine years old), I asked my father the seemingly simple question: “If you know what you should do, why don’t you do it?” He had been meaning to clean out his closet for years and still hadn’t done it. At the time, this made no sense to me, why wouldn’t you do something you know you should do, and moreover, from which you would benefit?

I understand now (alas) that it is not so simple. Oftentimes, doing what you know you should do requires a change in your behavior, and changing one’s behavior is not so easy. There is some new neuroscience that explains why it’s so hard to change ingrained behavior, but it’s not like we didn’t know already.

Perhaps the most illustrative evidence of this challenge is the sheer number of weight-loss products on the market. If behavior change were easy, we wouldn’t feel the need to turn to all these special programs, magic supplements and fad diets. But, in recent years, we have seen the development of something that does show considerable promise in terms of instigating and maintaining positive behavior change: technology. This is especially true in the realm of health and safety.

Technology to the Rescue

Technology is promising in this arena for many reasons, but chiefly because of its convenience and the ability to prompt willing choices and share stories—not to mention the projected growth in mobile apps and technology. In recent years, global revenue from apps has reached roughly $110 billion, with slightly less than 50% of that attributed to non-gaming applications.

By 2025, it is expected to reach $270 billion, and non-gaming revenue will account for 58% of that. In other words, it’s growing—and rapidly. People are becoming more receptive to apps and are recognizing their value. Furthermore, as more new employees enter the workforce and old ones retire, the number of people in the workplace who are not “technologically savvy” will lessen over time. Therefore, the fear that (older) employees will not use or know how to download an app on their own device is becoming less relevant or valid.

Many workplaces have already begun seeing the convenience of mobile technology. It allows employees to have easy access to things like Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). It can send an alert for PPE requirements in a certain area. Employees can create hazard-identification reports in seconds just by taking a picture or video.

For example, JLL India, a global real estate services firm, has an initiative called “Don’t Walk By,” in which employees are strongly encouraged to use an app the company provides to photograph or videotape any unsafe act or hazard, so it can immediately be escalated to management and handled.

Changing Behavior

Many people use sticky notes to change behavior. However, after some time passes, that note becomes a constant in their environment—and no longer sticks out. (photo courtesy SafeStart International)

The convenience of mobile technology doesn’t stop there. Many behavior-change initiatives or programs–whether they be for weight loss, wellness or for safety-required learning or training—can be challenging for workplaces. Firstly, getting employees off of the shop floor at the same time to sit in a classroom is difficult logistically. Secondly, getting a good trainer to come in also has drawbacks. Likely, the trainer or consultant will want to be paid per day, but spending a day or half-day in the classroom is far from ideal from the perspective of the learner.

People are generally only able to absorb around 20 minutes’ worth of new information at once, before our brains need a break. The most effective way of learning new information is to do it in short bursts. Thus, mobile technology enables training to be optimized for the learner while eliminating the difficulties inherent in classroom training. And, as the panelists of the SafeConnection Expert Panel series said somewhat jokingly, it’s not like these guys really liked the classroom in the first place.

Out with the Old Habits

Behavior change also requires learning new habits or breaking old ones. For example, imagine you are trying to build the habit of flossing your teeth twice a day or drinking more water. I’m sure we can all agree that simply trying to remember to do it more often has little promise (not worth betting on). We forget things all the time—until they become routine. You might put a sticky note on your bathroom mirror as a reminder. Unfortunately, after some time (about a week or two), that sticky note will likely no longer stick out to you—it is just part of your bathroom.

That’s the problem: If something becomes a constant in your environment, soon you won’t really notice it anymore. But what if you got a notification twice a day, around the time you should be drinking more water? This can be a simple text that says, “Drink more water.” The probability of building that habit is much higher.

The same principle applies for health and safety related habits. If there are a number of habits you want employees to learn, give them a list (see chart “Preventative Habits”) and have them select the one they personally want to work on. Now you can prompt them with reminders at random intervals or times throughout the day with an alarm function. This way, all of the habits they select stay top of mind. Note: It’s much better for adults if you let them pick which ones they want to work on, rather than you or someone else deciding for them.

Positive Peer Pressure

Reminding a worker to drink water at regular intervals is a perfect use of mobile technology for health and safety. (photo courtesy SafeStart International)

Lastly, our behavior and our beliefs are largely influenced by our peers. This is why sharing stories is so effective when it comes to learning and behavior change. A young worker, for example, is likely aware that they are supposed to lift boxes or materials with good ergonomic posture. Certainly, they know they don’t want to get hurt, but unless they have heard someone tell a story about a time they used improper technique and threw their back out (and how much it hurt), they likely won’t take it to heart until they do it to themselves.

Good stories allow us to learn from other people’s mistakes—without having to actually experience the pain ourselves. Lessons learned from these stories are usually much easier to remember than facts or data presented in a classroom.

Anyone that uses social media knows how easy it is to share stories with people near and far and, thanks to mobile technology, those stories can stay with us wherever we go. This is also important because it can help keep health and safety on our radar screens. By using story feeds to share instances where we got hurt, or when a certain habit prevented us from getting hurt, employees will be reminded of their health and safety training. This is especially important for helping to fight complacency—whether it be at work, on the road or at home.

Mobile technology is making a big impact in all industries around the world. Some see it as a necessary evil, but others see what it has to offer. Mobile technology can put real, useful tools for behavior change in the palm of everyone’s hand. Having easy access to SOPs, PPE requirements and hazard IDs already gives this technology value for health and safety. But the ability to deliver training; prompt willing choices; and share stories with coworkers and peers makes behavior change accessible and possible in a way that just wasn’t available before.

It might seem like mobile technology is not the place for HSE, but the negative aspects—mainly its ability to distract us when we are moving—can be eliminated in the same way things like smoking in the workplace have been eliminated, with rules and supervision. There really aren’t any good reasons to prevent all the benefits mobile technology can bring to the workplace. If you’re still in doubt, just ask a Millennial. They’ll probably say, “Why did you make me wait so long?”

About the Author

Mackenzie currently works as a Project Manager for SafeStart International. She is also the author of The Best vs. The Worst, an upcoming book highlighting how the world’s leading experts are tackling some of the most difficult and persistent health and safety problems.

Preventative Habits

  • Test your footing or grip, before you commit your weight.

  • Look for things that could cause you to lose your balance, traction or grip.

  • Slow down to look for line-of-fire potential, when you can’t see or can’t see well (blind corners, alleyways, etc.).

  • Move your eyes first, before your hands, feet, body or vehicle.

  • Don’t grab things that might be hot; touch them first.

  • Test the weight before lifting.

  • Use a checklist to prevent forgetting things.

  • Set reminder alarms (right away) to minimize forgetting appointments.

  • Look carefully at anything you’re going to stick your hand into or rest your hand on.

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