Coronavirus — how to change behaviour

Changing how people behave at work is always a challenge. Mike Sopp describes how a behaviour change campaign can be useful in encouraging Covid-19 secure behaviours.

As the UK comes out of Covid-19 lockdown, many organisations are making plans for employees to return the workplace for some of the time at least, albeit with Covid-19 risk mitigation measures in place.

These new risk control measures are likely to require employees to abide by new rules, use facilities in a different way, alter working practices and possibly wear protective equipment or face coverings.

This means individuals must modify their workplace behaviour to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. Changing behaviour can be challenging. As such, employers should consider the use of a behaviour change campaign as part of the return to work programme.

New normal and behaviour failures

The working environment in the UK has changed significantly due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The so-called “new normal” is driven by the requirements of the UK Government (including the respective home nation governments).

As part of the return to work, employers are required to risk assess the work environment and work activities and implement relevant risk control measures, which in turn will require the modification or change in how employees behave.

This will generally require employees to:

  • follow guidance in relation to hand washing and hygiene (including using any items provided for such purposes)

  • maintain social distancing rules while at workstations, travelling around premises and using welfare facilities

  • modify how they work, eg by following fixed team working, staggered work times, changes to work activities and working from home.

In addition, in some circumstances, employees may be required to use personal protective equipment where there is a high risk of transmission. This can include those undertaking first aid or cleaning activities. Face coverings may also be an option in certain circumstances.

Behaviour is a critical aspect of all activities conducted within every organisation, including health and safety. How safely people behave at work is influenced by the combination of, and the influence between, personal factors, the job and the organisation.

Failure in desired behaviour for an individual relating to Covid-19 can include:

  • a lapse of attention, eg failing to recognise social distancing while concentrating on working

  • a genuine mistake, eg not being aware of hygiene control requirements

  • deliberately cutting corners, eg not following internal one-way systems

  • rule breaking, eg not bothering to clean a workstation before using it.

There is strong research evidence to suggest that behaviour modification techniques can be effective in promoting critical health and safety behaviours, provided that they are implemented effectively. A “behaviour change campaign” can help.

Behaviour change campaigns

There are various behaviour change programme or models that can be used to encourage employees to behave in the required manner. This includes the Hearts and Minds safety programme developed by Shell Exploration & Production in 2002 and the ABC model described in Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance. Further details of these can be found using the links given below.

On a more practical level relating specifically to Covid-19, the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI) has put into the public domain their “Covid-19 Workplace Actions” campaign.

According to the CPNI, this change behaviour campaign aims to encourage the right behaviours among employees and visitors, that they “undertake the correct social distancing and hygiene behaviours effectively in order to continue operating or to return to a position of where their missions can be delivered safely”.

The campaign is based around the following key behaviours:

  • maintaining physical distance

  • improving hygiene practices

  • reducing interactions

  • encouraging staff to speak up/report concerns.

The campaign aims to achieve these behaviours by “a co-ordinated set of communications and other activities that come together to successful embed these behaviours”.

The main tool of the CPNI campaign is “impactful communication on Covid-19” that “appeals to the stakeholder sense of duty to support the public health campaign to reduce transmission of the virus”.

The aim should be to communicate a few simple but clear actions that can be taken by employees and others. This uses the “5Es” framework of behaviour change, as follows.

  • Educate (why): understand the nature of the threat and why this poses a risk to them as an individual.

  • Enable (how): providing clear, concise instructions on how they can work safely.

  • Environment (shape): ensuring the environment is shaped to make behaviours easy.

  • Encourage (the action): feedback to help reinforce the desired behaviours and discourage the unwanted ones.

  • Endorse (the action): by credible internal and external sources.

The CPNI has made available considerable related guidance on how to develop, manage and deliver the campaign. For example, it suggests that the principles of the campaign are to create a measured amount of worry, emphasise that the whole organisation is in it together, and the empowerment of employees.

The point about creating a measured amount of worry is reflected in the HSE approach to behaviour change who state that “if workers can be made to feel personally vulnerable… this is helpful” but that fear-inducing messages are “not usually advisable”.

Other useful tips for the campaign include the following.

  • Focus on no more than five key behaviours otherwise the campaign will not be successful.

  • Consider the palette and style of any visual materials (black and yellow are normally seen as warning colours in nature and have more of an impact, as will pictures or graphics).

  • Use simple messages to communicate the aims of the campaign. For example, to encourage employees to speak up and report concerns, the message could be “Say if it’s not okay”.

  • Place physical communications (eg posters) at “dwelling points” in the workplace such as lift lobbies and kitchens.

  • Ensure the campaign does not clash with other planned campaigns or major communications.

PPE and face coverings

One area the CPNI campaign does not address is the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and/or face coverings. The challenge for many employers is that employees may be using PPE or face coverings for the first time and as such appropriate behaviour in their use is essential.

Where the risk assessment identifies the need for PPE, the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 would apply. These require employers to “take all reasonable steps to ensure that any personal protective equipment provided to employees is properly used”.

Face coverings are not PPE. However, Government guidance notes that “employers should support their workers in using face coverings safely if they choose to wear one”.

More often than not, employers will provide users with information, instruction and training to ensure that the equipment is “properly used”. However, the provision of information, instruction and training does not automatically guarantee safe behaviour and therefore safe use of PPE.

In terms of behavioural safety and the use of personal protective equipment or face coverings, the question the employer should be asking is not so much what makes individuals behave in an inappropriate manner but rather when do individuals act in a safe way?

The key factors in this are that individuals:

  • are aware of the hazards and feel personally at risk

  • believe they can control the risks from the hazards by their actions and the equipment available

  • are encouraged to behave safely through culture and social norms.

Any behaviour campaign should seek to address these factors.

The first point reflects the principle noted above in the CPNI campaign on creating a measured amount of worry (in this case the risk from Covid-19 transmission).

Using PPE and face coverings in an appropriate manner is essential behaviour and to do so individuals must have confidence it will protect them. Confidence will be built by providing appropriately specified items of PPE or face coverings (which now have a specification from the British Retail Consortium) and items that are of good ergonomic design. Including employees in selection will also assist. Any campaign should reflect this and detail the equipment specifications.

Culture and social norms are key factors in appropriate behaviour. If a workgroup adopts the norm that thinking and behaving safely is best for all concerned, the group as a whole will tend to apply social “sanctions” to any individual who behaves unsafely.

A simple example could be to use posters with employees wearing the PPE or face coverings as an example to others.


The new normal work environment can create challenges for employers, not least in terms of employee behaviour relating to new risk control measures necessary to control the transmission of Covid-19.

Behaviour can be influenced by many factors including individual attitudes and organisational culture.

Behaviour modification techniques can be used to help employees adapt to the demands of a Covid-secure workplace. A behaviour change campaign, with communication at its core, can be a powerful tool.

Further information

  • COVID-19 Workplace Actions Campaign. Guidance for Organisations, CPNI

  • CRR 430/2002 Strategies to Promote Safe Behaviour as Part of a Health and Safety Management System, HSE

  • HSG48 Reducing Error and Influencing Behaviour, HSE

  • Safety Behavioural Systems topic