Behavioural Health : An Introduction

Laura Morrison Employment

By Richard C. Renson and Laura Morrison

Originally published in National Council of Psychotherapists Journal – Feb 2017

As therapists, we are often concerned with enabling clients to evaluate and make changes to behaviour. Behavioural Health as a subject matter is broad, complex, and difficult to pin down.

Scientists have studied twins for many years to understand how genes and environments influence differences among individuals, spanning conditions such as
cancer and mental health, to characteristics such as intelligence, and political beliefs. These studies, and many more, have endeavored to find answers to motivation for change, in all aspects of life and particularly with regard to smoking, eating, alcohol and other drug consumption.

Factors that have been studied that can impact positively or negatively on an individuals’ chances of success in making change are differences between educational prowess, skills sets, management of money, people, resources, upbringing and levels of empathy, altruism, self-concept and locus of control.

There is even the Behavioural Insights Team, jointly owned by the UK Government and Nesta, the innovation charity. In Cambridge, there is the Behaviour and Health
Policy Research Unit, seeking to uncover insights into creating motivation in the areas of social engagement, alcohol, diet, physical activity, and smoking. These
fora cover themes that include, Public Acceptability, Economic Environment Interventions, Physical Environment Interventions, and Health Inequalities.

There has been an increased interest in the psychological processes involved in the choices people make. Whole marketing and political campaigns, have been
organised on feedback from focus groups, and opinion polls. Think Tanks have sprung up, and economic and employment psychologists have been engaged to predict behaviour, and choices people will make, so that policies can be created to manage organisational structures.

In May 2010, the Coalition Government published a discussion paper entitled;
“Applying behavioural insight to health”

The introduction read:
“There has been the assumption that central government can only change people’s behaviour through rules and regulations. Our government will be a much smarter one, shunning the bureaucratic levers of the past and finding intelligent ways to encourage, support and enable people to make better choices for themselves.”

Coalition Commitment, May 2010

The study drew on case studies from:
1. Smoking:
2. Organ donation:
3. Teenage pregnancy:
4. Alcohol:
5. Diet and weight:
6. Diabetes:
7. Food hygiene:
8. Physical activity:
9. Social care:

The underlying rationale was to reduce Government resources in many areas, and draw on individual motivation to make healthier lifestyle choices, reduce person risk to health, choose active lifestyles over a sedentary ones, and encourage moral and social thinking at home, in schools, colleges, and university. This work is continued via Nesta, and many other research establishments, universities, and organisations across the globe.

With an increasingly elderly population, shortage of NHS families, stalled wages, rising cost of living, and all the global conflicts, to name just a few stressors, making behavioural choices with a positive outcome becomes harder.

We rush through life, ever faster, needing food and drink on the go, behaviours and substances to self-medicate our feelings, and stimulate our tired bodies.

Relaxation costs money, do we have enough to go to the gym, treat our children to days out, holidays, the latest toy? Have we time to eat healthily? What we buy in supermarkets tends to have been in the transport hub for weeks, if not months before we get it home to prepare for consumption.

All this stress, and we may never quite reach the goals we, and others, the press, media, cinema, and news tell us is the way to be, look, and behave.

At Salutem, we are interested in Behavioural Health from an organisational perspective. We know that there exist cultures within businesses, whatever they
do, whatever the size, and whatever the company goals might be.

Some of these cultures may benefit everyone, some might not. An example might be:

Over the years, there have been changes in the way business is conducted in the City of London. In the ‘80s, many big business deals were completed over a great
deal of alcohol consumption. This has faded out, being seen as inappropriate and unhealthy. Lloyds of London, most notably have made a recent policy change in this regard, opening the way for other city institutions to follow suit in an ever more competitive global market place.

There has been change around what is individually, and collectively acceptable in the work place. For example, a no-smoking policy, a legal requirement, would look
from various peoples’ view point, like a good idea. What about those folk using electronic cigarettes, that are supposed to be a healthier option to ordinary cigarettes? They may feel victimised, and not perform their job as effectively as they might.

As qualified therapists and psychologists, we believe that people will do what they do from the information they have gathered via life experiences initially. People usually have a world view born of genetics, early family, school, and community experiences. If clients have had any trauma, this will impact on the way they engage with others, and judgements on life as a whole.

All of this creates a complexity for businesses to manage, and have the best possible structures for all involved in the organisation. There needs to be an educational piece, explaining the prose and cons of particular actions, choices, behaviours, and thought processes.

It is no good assuming that “everyone knows that”, because, they might not due to individual experience and education – this is where policies that set down norms for behaviour need to be clearly expressed. Employees are then in need of motivation to change. This can be a collective need, or an individual choice. But it needs support, empathetic management, conscious awareness and emotional intelligence in the work place, and at home, and to be revisited on a regular basis, both personally and with relevant professional support.

Change is a process, not an event. It is never linear, often fraught with roadblocks, relapse, and difficult emotions to manage along the way. The goal needs to be worth these struggles, or behavioural change will be a long time coming.

Feb 17

Richard C. Renson and Laura Morrison