Behavioural insights when applied to the workplace refer to the use of simple, low-cost interventions for changing behaviour by optimising the workers’ social or physical context. They also sought views on how behavioural insights might apply to following workplace COVID-19 rules. Since the survey was qualitative, we report here the survey’s findings according to themes, supporting quotes and examples (summarised below). Findings are separated according to the Behavioural Insights Team’s ‘EAST’ framework3 – what makes H&S easy, attractive, social and timely. We conclude the article by considering how the findings can be applied to sustaining COVID-19 safety at this point in the pandemic, and to what employers can do to support vaccine roll-out.
Making H&S easy
Identifying ways of making H&S easy relied for many participants on worker involvement processes described as ‘largely listening to others throughout the organisational chain of command’ to make ‘rules and procedures practicable’, ‘test assumptions’, ensure that the ‘architects of rules and procedures have sufficient insight into workplace realities’ and optimise ‘compliance’. Generating solutions that take advantage of workforce ‘creativity’ and supporting ‘organisational problem-solving’ were also described as worker involvement benefits. Potential efficiency savings generated by worker involvement were described: ‘Workers used existing materials to … make a barrow more like a shopping trolley … that was safer and more suitable for the task. The new design was achieved within 24 hours.’
Simplification was applicable to ‘existing processes’, ‘systems’ and ‘rules and procedures’ to make them more ‘practicable’ and therefore ‘achievable’. Simplification and consistency were considered to be essential for COVID-19 messaging to avoid confusion due to ‘different tiers in different areas’. Strategies suggested for simplifying COVID messages included ‘breaking down information of what the disease is and how it spreads into layman terms’. Using defaults ‘to enable working safely is the logical and only way’ was similarly felt to be important for COVID-19 safety controls because ‘we are largely working in the unknown’. We are therefore exercising ‘discretion requiring knowledge that we don’t have’.
According to this viewpoint, the still-emerging understanding of COVID-19 transmission makes it harder for employees to make informed choices about safe workplace controls. In which case, uncertain options must be designed out. In contrast, we know that the wider public health strategy has been hugely dependent upon people choosing to follow rules such as ‘hands, face and space’.
Strategies described for making H&S more accessible comprised using one-stop online H&S information resources such as ‘SharePoint and Power Apps,’ digitising previous hard-copy forms, and for COVID-19, distributing ‘automated updates’ that ‘keep everyone up to date with changes’ and include the ‘supply chain’.’ The ‘use of quick videos to explain H&S information’ was portrayed as enhancing H&S information accessibility. Taking advantage of the primacy effect3 by selecting the most important H&S messages to appear first within H&S communication also enhances accessibility.
Using the ‘right equipment for a given activity’ to ensure usability by, for example, ‘selecting good quality and comfortable face coverings for our staff’ was considered particularly important for COVID-19 control, and also necessary for reducing injury by making it ‘easier for moving materials around’.
Cueing safety behaviour4 examples by optimising the situation comprised using visual cues such as posters to prompt social distancing, the ‘use of coloured signage to show dangers areas’ and ‘painting footprints to prompt drivers to stand within the safest position within a loading bay’. ‘Routine inspections’ were advocated for assuring COVID-19 compliance. Similarly, being specific about the required H&S behaviour by unpacking what it should be, and under what circumstances it should be executed via statements such as ‘I am wearing PPE when working with hot polymer’ should make that behaviour easier to follow. Use of ‘I’ in this instance would encourage ownership of that behaviour.
Making H&S attractive
Framing refers to emphasising messages according to gains or losses without compromising underlying meaning.4 Gain-framing examples provided included: ‘Showing folks that safety is a driver for success will make them feel better about themselves and make the job easier.’
For board pitches in particular, ‘pointing to examples of how safety enables businesses’, or ‘enables efficiency at work’ along with providing ‘results-orientated messages’ were portrayed as strategies used for enhancing H&S persuasiveness. Making H&S fun was also used by some: for example, converting ‘statutory tasks’ into a ‘quiz’ or encouraging workers to co-create and share videos or photos to support statutory task education. ‘Puns’ and using social media technology such as ‘fun filters on Snapchat’ was also recommended for lending humour.
More negatively framed examples, including ‘reminding business of when things didn't go so well and the cost’, were also claimed as successful. As an extension of negative framing, anticipated regret5 was suggested for evoking prior consideration of what it might feel like to get H&S wrong. As an illustration, coupling poster messages that ask ‘What would it be like to lose a thumb?’, with actual practice in undertaking simple tasks with the glove thumb tied, could be a powerful way of communicating risk.
One participant noted positive framing as potentially useful for encouraging people back into the workplace following lengthy home working periods during lockdown: ‘I am concerned working from home is becoming a habit. If those who are on site could talk about their positive experiences, that could help everyone.’
Nonetheless a couple of caveats were made about framing. First, a reminder was provided that for H&S the gain is the maintenance of the status quo: ‘As safety professionals we must help understand that the desired outcome is boring, the same thing/outcome happening every time without incident or accident.’
For COVID-19 this might mean emphasising that boredom equates to safety and worth experiencing in the shorter term to regain freedoms in the longer term: ‘Lockdown was boring when compared to going to pubs and restaurants.’
Second, since framing assumes rational decision-making, it may be less applicable for emotive issues such as COVID-196: ‘Affect (emotion), a world view and normative influences tend to be more persuasive.’
As an extension of positive framing, appealing to people’s strengths was recommended as potentially effective in securing H&S engagement. One such example concerned recruiting line managers to facilitate troubleshooting H&S workshops by emphasising a wish to draw upon on their ‘leadership skills’.
Some participants advocated targeting messages to heighten the appeal of H&S messages. Messages were targeted according to age, including reaching younger workforce cohorts via fun social media messages. Appealing to personal or professional identity by heightening ‘awareness of personal responsibility’, reminding of how safe work enables ‘life outside work’ or by creating a ‘health and safety brand’ were also used. For COVID-19, survey feedback implied that the heightened potential to be ‘personally impacted’ by COVID-19 provides safety motivation with more impetus.
‘Making a fuss about the good stuff’, or more formally rewarding positive H&S outcomes such as ‘charity donations’ or ‘fish and chip Fridays’ represented solutions for making H&S more attractive through reward and recognition. At a more strategic level, aligning performance appraisal H&S objectives with organisational objectives can help make the attainment of goals more meaningful.4 An external reward’s potential to undermine motivation to observe H&S for its own sake was also recognised.4 Explaining ‘why’ safety should be important to employees was advocated by some as pivotal to making H&S more meaningful.
Making H&S social
For social norms, a few participants advised that providing data on the proportion of a workforce that behaves safely only serves to motivate if the behaviour is measured, performed by the majority and desirable. For COVID-19, this means demonstrating that for the majority, job objectives are still tenable with COVID-19 rules ‘so that the “new” behaviour becomes integrated into the way we do things’.
Getting to that point was also considered to ‘require strong emphasis on acceptable behaviour from a senior level’ and some ‘peer pressure’ from more influential colleagues ‘to follow our internal rules regarding wearing of masks, good hygiene practices and social distancing etc.’ In particular, shaping social norms around a sense of ‘community instead of teams’, was highlighted as particularly important in a context where ‘wellbeing, mental health, race, gender and other social topics are being openly discussed’. For the pandemic, appreciation that ‘we are all in this together’ was similarly considered vital for ‘ensuring any anxiety is recognised’.
Using generally ‘liked’ influencers to advocate H&S messages was also recommended but might require selecting different messengers for different workforce cohorts.2 As an illustration, the persuasiveness of ‘I am wearing PPE when working with hot polymer, are you?’ potentially stems from the prompting of a social comparison7 between personal behaviour and that of a well-known colleague. For COVID-19, ‘taking an approach that is used by using social media influencers’ such as ‘Marcus Rashford, Stacey Dooley and Joe Wicks’ to ‘promote products or initiatives’ was encouraged. Similarly, internal social media platforms and ‘social feed discussion’ along with ‘newsletters’ were advocated for facilitating ‘conversations on COVID’ and running time-bound H&S campaigns.
From the leadership perspective, ‘having values’ that leaders ‘uphold with their actions and words,’ ‘leading by example,’ ‘understanding from leaders that what is spoken about becomes important’ and making pledges or ‘personal and public commitment by senior leadership to build upon strengths and improve shortcomings’ were all held up as providing the necessary backdrop to making H&S a shared expectation. In one example, using local supervisors to facilitate global troubleshooting H&S workshops and ‘share positive examples of their own leadership’ was reported as successful because it put local leadership in touch with operational issues, strengthened their sense of ownership and made them positive safety exemplars.
Making H&S timely
For planning, established H&S guidance such as HSG65 was described as used to systematically assimilate H&S planning into a ‘plan, do, check, act’ framework. Examples of building H&S into regular project ‘look-ahead’ meetings were described. One participant called for using ‘exit plans’ as a basis for specifying any modification of COVID controls due to emergence from lockdown or different tiers. Suggestions were made to integrate COVID-19 management into wider H&S management but without compromising the ability to control for the specific attributes of COVID-19 risks or other H&S hazards: ‘It is important for it to be part of how we work safely, but not all of it.’
Prompting people with H&S messages ‘when more receptive’ was recommended for encouraging H&S engagement. This might be according to ‘peak previous incident times’ or for issuing public health messaging ‘whilst staff are commuting to work so it lands in their peripheral awareness before starting to work’. Nonetheless, determining what is timely was described as thwarted by individual variability in changes in circumstances and ability to anticipate those changes. Instead, ‘reviewing the situation and person in real time’ might help timing messages so that they resonate according to common experiences felt by the majority (such as reminding people not to drop their COVID controls after having received a vaccine).
Being mindful of the wider business position was also emphasised, thereby ‘ensuring that any changes in safety aren’t clashing with other big commercial changes’. Conversely, developing networks within an organisation, especially senior leadership, was also recommended for galvanising their support as H&S champions following drops in H&S performance, so that a ‘CEO’s concerns in declines in safety performance becomes an opportunity to pitch safety initiatives’.
Repetition and reinforcement was recommended for helping maintain progress. Reinforcement strategies included ‘providing feedback on how suggestions are used’ and feeding back the ‘benefits of making changes, such as the achievement of work objectives /targets’. Being ‘vocal with positive reinforcement’ was strongly advocated. Repetition of important H&S messages was widely endorsed and considered particularly important for COVID messaging, involving ‘continuously providing feedback about the situation,’ ‘any changes’ and ‘reinforcing messages that no one is immune’. Keeping vigilant ‘by instructing and continuously keep[ing] watching in any new situation’ was endorsed. Point-of-use prompts, such as positioning posters where they can prompt the task in hand, were also suggested: ‘It’s all about the right visible communication in the right place.’
Embedding and evaluation
Due to operating at a more strategic level, some of the nudge strategies presented cut across the EAST categories (easy, attractive, social and timely). For example, the global H&S improvement workshops that recruited local supervisors to act as facilitators had easy features by providing scope for tailoring to local H&S needs. They had attractive characteristics by appealing to supervisors’ strengths in order to recruit. They worked at a social level by providing a forum for networking and via setting positive leadership examples for safety issue. Finally, they were timely because they occurred in response to a safety performance decline.
Positive leadership represents a more strategic nudge by fostering conditions conducive to operational nudging in all four EAST categories. Embedding nudge-type thinking into the different stages of HSG65 could be regarded as strategic by permitting assimilation into risk assessments, control identification, and incident investigation. Following a similar process, the OECD4 advocates a DEFINE (problem behaviours), DIAGNOSE (barriers and bottlenecks for safe behaviours), DESIGN (nudge interventions based on the EAST framework) and TEST model for embedding behavioural insights into organisational behaviour. We did not find substantive evidence of nudges being tested in any systematic way. Doing so seems imperative if momentum is to build in creating a clear understanding of how nudges can be applied to H&S. This doesn’t necessarily mean attempting hard-to-do randomised control trials. Testing strategies such as ‘experience sampling’ or running focus groups to get feedback on how nudges can be improved could still provide a useful learning worthy of wider dissemination.
Tips for compliance
We have built these findings to provide some tips in two areas pertinent to the challenges we face at this stage in the pandemic. These concern tips for how to sustain COVID-19 rule-following behaviour now that we are over a year in to the pandemic (Table 2), along with tips on what the employer can do to support vaccine roll-out (Table 3).
For vaccine roll-out, we think that employers can play their part in ensuring that COVID-19 vigilance is not eased until the vaccine programme achieves herd immunity levels. We believe it imperative that employers very deliberately communicate that, wherever true, the majority of workers are generally following the rules to avoid creating a self-fulfilling misconception that non-compliance might be the norm.
It is also important to strike a careful balance between sustaining sufficient wariness that motivates workers to remain COVID-vigilant with messaging that creates confidence that achieving usual job objectives remains possible within COVID rules. These tips also draw on a well-known need among H&S professionals that stems from hierarchical control principles: namely that engineering out COVID-19 risks and creating clear, high-quality rules should offset unrealistic organisational dependence on behavioural compliance.10 This helps ensure the working situation is optimised to help workers choose to follow the rules. In turn, workers are not unfairly blamed and disaffected by failing to follow unworkable rules. From a preventative perspective, H&S practitioners know that people’s behavioural choices determine compliance, highlighting that behavioural approaches should be one of a suite of tools by which the workplace manages H&S. In our view, this should be no different for the pandemic.
In our view, the survey findings provide a number of take-home messages. First, they help articulate understanding of how EAST strategies can be applied to H&S. In particular they further unpack what can be classified as attractive, such as emphasising the ‘why’, and what represents timely.
Second, they highlight lessons learnt in applying the EAST categories. These are indicated as ‘buts’ in Table 1 and include the importance of H&S nudges fitting with the wider business strategy, and ensuring external rewards do not hamper with safety being done for its own sake.
Third, for the pandemic they highlight that the associated uncertainty means that total dependence on behavioural compliance should be avoided. Above all, they highlight a general lack of testing of nudge initiatives. Evidence still appears to be at a principles level rather than borne out of tried and tested nudge methods. This really should occur if we are to truly understand what does and does not work when applying behavioural insights to H&S.
*Informed by findings plus Murphy J, Vallières F, Bentall RP et al. (2021) Psychological characteristics associated with COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy and resistance in Ireland and the United Kingdom. Nature Communications 12: 29. See: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-20226-9
Jennifer Lunt, director, J Lunt Associates Ltd
Malc Staves, corporate health and safety director, L’Oréal
Dominic Cooper, CEO, B-Safe Management Solutions Inc, US
Thank you to all those that participated in the survey. The authors would in particular like to thank Peter Webb from Beyond Risk Ltd for in-depth examples that he provided via interview.
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