Investigating the impact of behaviour change techniques on break taking at work

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) remain a major health problem, with insufficient
postural change at work implicated in their prevalence. Self-report data suggest that
office workers sit for long periods without getting up1.
The Theory of Planned Behaviour (TPB) outlines a number of factors thought to
impact on intention to behave in a certain way, highlighting (though not addressing) a
gap between intention and behaviour. External prompts or reminders, and the writing
of implementation intentions (‘if-then’ plans) have been used to close this gap for
other behaviours in office environments.
Background and Aims
This study2 investigated whether these plans and prompts increased the number of
short (30 second) postural breaks taken by ‘desk-bound’ office staff. The research
used a mixed-methods approach to investigate postural break-taking behaviour at
work. The study involving 195 participants was carried out to see how regularly staff
got up from their desks before, immediately following and several months after the
introduction of behaviour change interventions.
The interventions were as follows:

  • Group A (control or ‘usual care’ group) was asked to try to take more postural
  • Group B was asked to formulate a break-taking ‘implementation intention’
  • Group C was asked to formulate a break-taking implementation intention
    linked to vibration prompts delivered by the BACK-TRACK™ device after
    every hour of inactivity.
  • Group D was encouraged to respond to vibration prompts from the
    BACKTRACK™ device after a one-hour period of inactivity but didn’t create
    implementation intention plans.
    To understand the reasons behind the success or failure of break-taking behaviours
    views were sought via focus group participants (n=31)

Study findings
Data revealed that this population take regular postural breaks, even at baseline
(=3.34 postural breaks per hour). Writing if-then plans were effective in doubling the
odds that a meaningful increase in postural breaks would be achieved. External
buzzing prompts did not affect the number of breaks taken and no intervention effect
on pain was found.
Participants reported a number of factors that influenced their break taking; these
have been classified using the TPB, to which a number of additional factors have
been integrated. A list of recommendations describing how to incorporate all the
findings from this study into health and safety practice are outlined.
The following principles offer a practical – but still evidence-based approach to guide

  • Ensure the goal behaviour is clear and its benefit understood – the specifics
    of the goal behaviour need to be clearly explained, and potentially revisited
    and re-enforced.
  • Secure demonstrable management commitment – participants need to know
    and have demonstrated to them that the goal behaviour is fully endorsed by
    management. Workload must not be allowed to override healthy behaviours.
  • Provide multiple methods for goal achievement – a variety of different
    approaches to support the achievement of the goal behaviour should be
    proposed, to suit different individuals, with the ability to personalise them.
  • Adapt the built environment and work systems to support the goal behaviour –
    wherever possible, changes should be made to the physical work
    environment and work systems to support the goal behaviour.
  • Set-up two-way feedback – this should inform participants about their
    performance and provide understanding of the blockers and enablers for the
    goal behaviour. It should also provide the opportunity for success to be reenforced and shared.
  • Support participants to deal with barriers – having identified any barriers for
    the goal behaviour, such as poor understanding or technical issues, there
    must be a clear mechanism through which such barriers can be

For further details on this research and full references read the full report: Wiliams,
C., Denning, E., Baird, A., and Sheffield, D. Investigating the impact of behaviour
change techniques on break taking behaviour at work. IOSH, 2014.


  • What have you learnt that is applicable to your workplace?
  • How does this research influence your practice as an OSH professional?
  • What can you do differently to enhance OSH services in your
  • How would you use the 6 priorities identified by the research to develop
    interventions within your organisation?
  • How would you use the 6 priorities to critique existing interventions in your

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