The Nudge: behavioural economics and the healthier workplace

A new book co-authored by Haworth’s global research lead argues that better workplace wellbeing will result from changing leadership cultures in companies, not from adding yet more wellness programmes

Haworth’s global lead in workplace research and strategy, Dr Michael O’Neill, has co-written an important new book that brings behavioural economics to workplace wellbeing in the search for new solutions to improve performance. In this exclusive interview with WORKTECH Academy, O’Neill explains how the book came about, what its key messages are and why the subject is here to stay.     

Academy: How did the book get written?

O’Neill: I teamed up with the futuristic Rex Miller and Phillip Williams from the WELL Building Institute, and the three of us spent two years meeting with large groups of medics, engineers, entrepreneurs and architects to gain insights into what makes healthier workplaces. Our original intention was to look at wellness generally – the way it is funded in the US and how the system is broken. But the book ended up being all about how you build a leadership culture that favours wellbeing in the workplace.

In the book, you make an important distinction between wellness and wellbeing…

Wellness programmes in the workplace try to fix something that is already broken – it could be obesity or diabetes. Wellbeing is a more holistic and proactive concept leading to behaviour change so people don’t have health-threatening conditions in the first place. I’m fascinated by the work of the Chicago behavioural economist Richard Thaler, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2017. As an architect and cognitive psychologist who has spent his entire career studying people and space, I love Thaler’s term ‘choice architecture’. Thaler looked at the idea of the behavioural ‘nudge’ in relation to government policies such as voluntary retirement. We’ve taken the concept and adapted it to the workplace itself.

What does a workspace ‘nudge’ look like?

You might want to encourage people to walk and interact more in the interests of improving wellbeing. So you punch a central staircase through several floor slabs of the office building and you slow the lifts down. Nudges don’t take away choice, they are more subtle than that. Workplace stress is a big killer because it releases the chemical cortisol, which floats around your body and has a corrosive effect over time. So we need to look at workspace features that reduce stress, such as making space more legible or giving people more individual control over space. Neither thing is difficult to do, or costs more money. We also need to look at the bigger picture to boost wellbeing – at changing leadership culture and redesigning organisations. In essence, that is what the book addresses.

Why is the leadership angle so important?

The current situation is not sustainable. The US could spend as much as 36 per cent of GDP on healthcare within a decade; if that happens, it will crash the system. The wellness industry is a big piece of it. People spend so much of their lives inside office buildings, so we need to do something about changing organisational culture – and that requires leadership.  There is currently no respite in the workplace – we are asking employees to perform like athletes. The tech companies are sending their engineers home because they are completely burnt out. We need a new way to think about work and life; we need to view the whole person, because right now the workplace is killing people. There’s a myth around wellness programmes such as weight loss or smoking cessation that for every dollar spent, you get three back in benefits. But we couldn’t find a single factual source to back that up. What we require is broader behavioural and cultural change – it’s not an esoteric idea and people can really resonate with it.

Order the book here.
Find exclusive content in the


Premium content for Global Partners, Corporate and Community Members.
The latest analysis and commentary on the future of work and workplace in five distinct themes: Research & Insights, Case Studies, Expert Interviews, Trend Publications, and Technology Guides.