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Save time, save lives and save employer healthcare costs: the power of changing habits

“We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.” - John Dryden

Amir PirniaAmir Pirnia

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Humans are remarkably habitual creatures. The fact that you are skeptical about that statement proves my point because skepticism is, in fact, a habit. Some habits are beneficial to us, while others are quite detrimental. Habits become so ingrained in us, they become seemingly impossible to change. When bad habits continue, specifically habits that negatively impact our health, healthcare costs rise. However, this need not be the case. By effectively educating your workforce on how to identify their bad habits, you can help them save time, become more efficient, become healthier, and possibly extend the length of their lives, and, while you’re at it, save your company money.

Healthcare costs are directly affected by habits. Healthcare costs resulting from smoking, drinking, and obesity alone add up to approximately 177 billion dollars annually. Research done by the American Medical Association shows that 25 cents of every healthcare dollar spent on the treatment of diseases or disabilities result from potentially changeable behavior. According to a 2014 national survey of employer-sponsored health plans by the benefits consultant, Mercer, 88% of employers with 500 workers or more offer a wellness program of some sort. Surprisingly, there is no good research that shows these programs actually improve health outcomes or lower employer costs, according to JoAnn Volk, a senior researcher at Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms. I believe this outcome is directly related to the inability of most employers’ wellness programs ability to break bad health habits or begin good health habits. So, how can we educate an employer and their employees to break bad habits and start beneficial health habits?

25 cents of every healthcare dollar spent on the treatment of diseases or disabilities result from potentially changeable behavior.

The first step for employers like you is to gain an understanding of the “science of habits”, so that you can convey to your employees how they can understand and transform their routine behaviors. According to MIT researchers, there is a neurological loop at the core of every habit. This neurological loop consists of three parts: A cue, a routine, and a reward.

Think of a habit you may have, particularly a bad one (I know, I know; how dare I suggest you have anything resembling a bad habit!). Now see if you can apply it to the habit loop (Check out the image.)

Habit-Loop-Graphic

For example, I have a bad habit of consuming energy drinks in the afternoon. I have two children under the age of three, so I’m lacking some ZZZ’s in the sleep department. Here is how my habit routine goes: I eat lunch, and usually sometime between one and three in the afternoon, my cue (feeling tired) kicks in. I then purchase an energy drink (packed with enough sugar to satisfy the annual needs of the average American citizen from 1822) to give me that extra pep in my step, which is my routine. My reward is obviously that buzz of energy that hits me, making me feel incredibly productive for the remainder of my workday.

Sometimes figuring out the habit routine is not as straightforward as mine. One person might have a bad habit of eating a Twinkie, but in reality, they are craving the socializing with colleagues that comes along the journey to the snack dispenser. This is where actively investigating your routine comes into play. Charles Duhigg, the author of the incredibly insightful The Power of Habit, delves deeper into how to investigate the routine, and ultimately, make change.

To change my habit routine, I came up with a simple plan. Instead of using high sugar “energy” drinks to wake me up, I realized that a ten-minute walkabout provided me with the same desired effect, and I also gained much needed exercise. Even better, I invited a co-worker to join me. The result: an unhealthy habit transformed not only into a habit that is naturally healthy but also socially rewarding.

By changing out habit routines, we can dramatically change the direction of our lives, and the ways in which we interact with others. Imagine how many people might have avoided catastrophes such as cancer, diabetes, and death if they had been able to overcome the powerful forces of ingrained bad habits in their lives. How much precious time has been wasted due to succumbing to a plethora of mindless behaviors, such as hours in front of the TV, video games, and smartphones. Imagine the wealth that has been spent paying health care costs due to bad habit routines.

We stand at the beginning of a new year. It’s not too late to make your New Year Resolutions. Save time, save lives, save employer health care costs and harness the power of changing habits. Now is the time to get on the path to a life of better health. What are you waiting for?

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