You don’t have to don a grubby rain coat but adopting a behavioural- change model, nicknamed after the Los Angeles TV detective Columbo, could facilitate health and safety improvements for office-based users of display-screen equipment. Dr Claire Williams and Margaret Hanson explain. Influencing people’s behaviours describes much of the modern safety and health practitioner’s day-to-day activity.

Whether it’s persuading colleagues to follow safe operating systems; move and handle objects in a safe way; or be willing to suggest improvements to current safety practice, we constantly strive to influence the behaviour of the colleagues for and with whom we work. So how can we better understand behaviour and use this understanding to improve our workplace interventions and, ultimately, effect an improvement in the health, safety and well- being of our colleagues?

This article, originally written for SHP magazine describes a simple but useful model of behaviour, and includes specific examples of how to use it in the workplace, with a particular focus on office environments.

What drives behaviour?
Although theories of behaviour abound, the COM-B model proposed by Michie et al 1 is elegantly simple. They argue that three things need to be present to drive a particular behaviour: motivation, opportunity and capability– the three things any detective from a hit American TV series would look for in a murder suspect! For that reason, we now call this the ‘Columbo’ model of behaviour, in honour of Peter Falk’s eponymous character. Before thinking about the office environment, let’s explore these three pre-requisites for behaviour change with some examples from outside the office.

Motivation, opportunity and capability
Often, our interventions stall because we have failed to provide sufficient motivation for our colleagues to persuade them a change in behaviour is worthwhile. So, while people have known for decades that ‘speed kills’ when driving, it has actually taken the huge rise in the cost of petrol to see a reduction in speed on motorways. Rather than being persuaded by the abstract knowledge of potential harm should a crash occur, drivers have gained motivation to reduce their speed from the concrete experience of spending less on fuel when they drive at lower speeds.

Where adequate motivation has been established, however, people still need the opportunity to change. It’s no use convincing someone of the health and social benefits of ballroom dancing if there are no venues or classes near them so they can take it up. The motivation is there, but the opportunity is not.

Even with motivation and opportunity, people may not be able to change their behaviour, if they don’t have the capability to do so. For example, we might persuade people of the need to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables and provide the opportunity for them to do so by ensuring there is a shop, greengrocer, or market stall within walking distance of their home. However, if their food budget is extremely tight, they are limited by their capability – real or perceived – to afford fresh produce.

Behaviour change in the office
There may be a range of behaviours that we wish to influence to improve health and safety in an office environment.
Those relating to safety may include encouraging storage of items in appropriate places to avoid trip hazards, or discouraging people from standing on chairs to put up Christmas decorations. Behaviours that have an influence on health may relate to how people actually use equipment and furniture – for example, poor postures or inappropriate use of equipment can cause discomfort. This is a subject frequently raised by DSE workstation assessors: the organisation can provide suitable adjustable chairs, but people still slouch, perch, or don’t take the time to adjust them.

So how do we use the ideas of the COM- B model in an office environment (and beyond) to improve the effectiveness of our interventions? Let’s consider three different areas where an understanding of behaviour change has helped.

Training is one way in which practitioners can provide both the motivation and capability for their colleagues to support a particular behaviour. A systematic review of the effectiveness of training and education for the protection of workers, undertaken by the Canadian Institute for Work and Health, found strong evidence that occupational health and safety training is effective in altering certain workplace health and safety behaviours, but there is insufficient evidence of the effectiveness of such training, or altered behaviour, on health.2

However, even the best training materials can only have an impact if people actually attend a course. Clearly, there are issues of motivation, capability and opportunity when it comes to attendance on a course, quite apart from their inclusion within the content of the course itself.

So how do we improve attendance at training courses? We have found that where courses are delivered to a variety of levels within an organisation, good attendance by senior staff drives attendance throughout the organisation. By leading by example senior managers can help provide motivation for other colleagues to attend. Furthermore, if senior staff have undertaken the training, it’s a given that other colleagues will also have the dispensation from their managers to attend (capability).

This only leaves opportunity – and we can provide that by sending out specific invitation information, rather than just a general invite.

With the availability of near-ubiquitous scheduling software, attendance can be supported further by linking the user-driven specification of time, date and location to their calendar software. Thus, individuals will have embedded their intention by specifying the course they will attend, and will have the added benefit of prompts from their calendar software as the time gets closer. By encouraging colleagues to specify the time, date and location of the course they would attend in this way, Sheeran and Silverman doubled attendance at a fire-safety training course.3

Workstation use
Many of us have been involved in educating colleagues about workstation set-up since before the DSE Regulations required it of us. Over the last 20 or more years, we have undertaken risk assessments, provided information and training, invested in seating, changed to flat screens, sampled all manner of computer mice, and generally re-visited workstation set-up from a variety of angles and approaches, in an effort to encourage healthy, productive behaviours.

In spite of these efforts, a glance round many offices still provides evidence of poor workstation set-up, poor use of chairs, poor typing skills, and colleagues remaining at their desks for long periods without getting up. How can we explain these findings with reference to the COM-B behaviour model, and what can we do to change them?

There seems to be a capability issue at play. We’d venture to propose that 30 years ago most people using a keyboard were trained touch-typists. Today, that is certainly not the case. Needing to look at the keyboard as you type almost certainly means you will have a flexed (forward bent) neck, the keyboard will have been pushed back in order to see the keys more easily, meaning the forearms are rested on the desk. This fixes the upper back in a forward-leaning position, and often leads to bending in the wrists, and an over-extended neck (pulled back relative to the trunk) when viewing the screen. Posture is significantly compromised compared with the more neutral upright postures that can be achieved when touch-typing.

When this is pointed out to non touch- typists they often see the benefit of touch- typing. However, the motivation to learn does not always result in the associated action, which requires approximately 15-20 hours of learning and practice.

So how could learning to touch-type be encouraged in a workplace? Firstly, provide appropriate software via which people can learn how to do it (opportunity).

Secondly, increase motivation by highlighting the benefits of being able to touch-type (improved posture with associated reduced risk of long-term discomfort; increased efficiency and reduced stress from slow-keying and typing errors). Motivation can be further increased by encouraging a group to learn together, possibly making it a friendly competition, or introducing an incentive.

We believe that instigating a touch-typing course could reap bigger dividends than any other workstation initiative you ever implement – and you can use all your new – found knowledge of motivation and opportunity to make sure the uptake is good.

Adopting good posture
Where touch-typing may be seen as a capability issue, other behaviours, such as taking breaks and gripping the mouse, have been examined from the perspective of opportunity.

People are generally unaware of their posture when working, and drawing attention to poor posture can create the opportunity for it to be improved. Software and hardware reminders have been introduced via a number of products to encourage people to improve their posture, or behaviour. Examples include: software that monitors keystrokes and break frequency; hand contact with the mouse; posture in front of the screen (via a webcam); or posture in the chair (via sensors that identify whether the full length of the seat pan and backrest are being used). These reminders focus neither on the motivation nor the capability of the individuals to change their behaviour but rather on their opportunity to act, by providing an on-screen prompt, or causing the mouse to vibrate.4

However, be warned – with any intervention to support behaviour change, there’s also the opportunity to annoy your colleagues, even in the face of a successful change. In the workplace, we have found that providing break-taking advice that interrupts colleagues part-way through a task can cause more harm than good. Likewise, lab studies that looked at interventions to stop ‘hovering’ over the mouse when it was not in use successfully changed behaviours but left participants far from satisfied with the intervention. In short, an annoying intervention is unlikely to be long-lasting.

Other, lower-tech ways of reminding people to adopt good posture and take breaks may involve posters, messages on mouse mats, intranet pages, screen savers, and reminders at team talks. Where an assessment of an individual has identified a poor postural habit (e.g. poking the head forwards, holding the middle finger up when using the mouse), highlighting this to the individual, and providing some easy way to visualise improved posture (e.g. a helium balloon lifting the head, or the middle finger having a small weight on the end of it) may be helpful. Taking a photo of their poor posture (with their permission), and giving them the image may help remind them of what to avoid.

Good posture may also be affected by a lack of knowledge (capacity) of how to use the equipment, particularly chairs. People are often unaware of how to adjust their chairs beyond raising and lowering the seat height. This is sometimes because the controls are not clear (i.e. don’t have labels), or the instructions that were supplied with the chair have been lost. Training and information on adjusting chairs (posters, information on the intranet) should be specific to the types of chair provided. When sourcing chairs it is worth looking for those that have clear labels on the adjustments.

Green initiatives
Our final area for consideration is the ‘environment’ – an area for which many practitioners have responsibility alongside health and safety.

Reducing the carbon footprint of our organisations is often part of the practitioner’s role, and turning off the lights makes a useful contribution towards this goal. So how might we support our colleagues in this endeavour?

Sussman and Gifford’s work provides a good example of a poster that aims to support motivation, capability and opportunity.5 Placed next to the light switch on the way out of washrooms (opportunity), the poster provides motivation for switching off the lights (saves electricity and reduces greenhouse gases) and supports capability by showing a picture of how to flick the switch.

Sussman and Gifford found users were eight times more likely to switch off the lights in washrooms in which these posters had been placed, compared with washrooms in which there weren’t – surely a resounding success?

However, just as with the prompts described above in support of taking breaks, or reducing mouse hovering, not everyone was delighted by the reminders on these washroom signs. In one workplace, an individual removed the signs in protest. Influencing behaviour is never as simple as we might hope.

So where does all this leave us? What have we learnt that we can apply to our workplace interventions?

The simple COM-B model of behaviour provides some useful hooks on which to assess initiatives. If your interventions are stalling, have you provided sufficient motivation for your colleagues to change? If you think there is good motivation, then perhaps it’s a capability issue – do they have the wherewithal to enact the change you’re after? Finally, if the motivation and the capability are there it may be down to the lack of opportunity. If so, make sure reminders are available and in the right place to support the change.

1 Michie, S et al (2011):  ‘The behaviour change wheel: A new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions’, in Implementation Science 2011, 6:42 – 1/42
2 Robson L, Stephenson C et al (2010):  A systematic review of the effectiveness of training and education for the protection of workers, Institute for Work & Health – education-programs
3 Sheeran, P and Silverman, M (2003):  ‘Evaluation of three interventions to promote workplace health and safety: evidence for the utility of implementation intentions’, in Social Science & Medicine, 56, pp2153-2163
4 de Korte, EM et al (2012):  ‘Effects of four types of non-obtrusive feedback on computer behaviour, task performance and comfort’, in Applied Ergonomics, 43, pp344-353
5 Sussman, R and Gifford, R (2012):  ‘Please turn off the lights: The effectiveness of visual prompts’, in Applied Ergonomics, 43 pp596-603

Dr Claire Williams is a consultant for Human Applications and Margaret Hanson is principal ergonomics consultant and managing director at WorksOut

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