Donna Carbell
Head of Group Benefits, Manulife Canada

Why are New Year’s resolutions so hard to keep?

Is it because we battle “two selves"? One, a forward-looking “planner” with good intentions, the other, a devil-may-care “doer” who lives for the present – consuming, consuming, consuming until sated?

It’s an idea behavioural economist Richard H. Thaler explains in his book Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics.

The power of behavioural economics has been receiving increasing recognition in recent years – advocates such as Thaler, Daniel Kahneman and Robert Shiller are all Nobel Prize winners in economics.

Insights have led governments and corporations to change their policies, and evolve how they interact with citizens and employees.

Indeed, advances in behavioural economics have made me reflect on our own work at Manulife. My team, for example, works with employers who offer group benefit plans to their employees, including strategies for encouraging employees to lead healthier lives.

It has been widely observed that chronic health conditions are on the rise in Canada and, in combination with an aging population, could soon reach economically unsustainable levels.

In her Report on the State of Public Heath in Canada 2017, the nation’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, cites diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease as the leading causes of death in Canada. In what it is calling an “epidemic,” the Canadian Diabetes Association says one in three, or approximately 11 million Canadians, are living with diabetes or pre-diabetes.1 The Lung Association of Canada says that chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is Canada’s number-one cause of hospitalization, and that lung cancer kills more people than breast, ovarian, colon and prostate cancer combined.2 We are also seeing rising rates of obesity and other chronic conditions linked to sedentary lifestyles.

Stats on New Year’s Resolutions

  • Only 1/5 Canadians get the recommended amount of physical activity4
  • Improving fitness and nutrition is Canadians’ No.1 New Year’s Resolution5
  • An estimated 1/3 Canadians made a resolution to improve their fitness6
  • 3/4 of Canadians who make a resolution are going to break it7

Dr. Tam also makes this essential point — healthier living can help to reduce all these conditions.

As for the economic impact of an unfit nation, the Conference Board of Canada reports3 that if we convinced just 10 per cent of inactive Canadians to lead less sedentary lives, by 2040 we would boost national GDP by $1.6 billion, and our provinces would pay $2.6 billion less in health care. Of course, the economic numbers fail to capture the emotional turmoil and prolonged suffering that individuals, their families and communities would also avoid through healthier living.

The impact on the workplace is equally compelling. Research shows that regular exercise can significantly reduce absenteeism and disability, and helps to reduce staff turnover. In short, a fitter workforce is a higher- and longer-performing workforce.

As the leader for Manulife’s group benefits offerings, I can vouch for the fact that Canadian employers fundamentally get it. Businesses today want to do the right thing, as part of their corporate social responsibility. A healthier employee is happier, contributes more to their family and community, pays taxes for a longer period, and uses fewer public health care dollars — diminishing resources, it should be noted, for our rapidly aging population.

So what does all this have to do with behavioural economics? Classic economic theory suggests that each of us weighs a range of options before ultimately making the most rational decision, based on self-interest. By contrast, behavioural economics says that people behave, well, like people. Our decisions are not always and wholly rational. In fact, say behavioural economists, we make both important and mundane decisions for a mix of rational and irrational reasons.

Human behaviour makes it a challenge to encourage healthier habits. If we want to reduce sedentary living among Canadians, citing statistics and making reasoned arguments about health are unlikely to work — at least for the long term. However, behavioural economists agree that the right kind of incentives (or nudges) stand a better chance of success, and will be more effective than disincentives. Or, to use more dated language, carrots are better than sticks.

My industry has been quick to connect the dots. Responding to the surging popularity of wearable fitness tracking devices and apps, many group benefits insurers have created wellness-rewards programs and made them part of their group plan offering. The ingenious technology and the convenience are certainly attractive, and so is the general intent of making people healthier.

But – buyer beware. I fear many of these programs lack the historical data required to ensure the sustainable health outcomes that Canadians need. They fill a desire for novelty, but aren’t backed by the proven and innovative behavioural science that has demonstrated long-term results.

Canadians deserve better than this from the benefits industry, especially if it is to be trusted to help reduce the national health burden – something government, I believe, can’t do on its own. It’s time to step up to the challenge of leveraging technology, not only to create fun customer experiences, but to deliver a nation of happier, healthier and more productive people. Because the health of Canadians matters. 

As Nobel Prize-winning economists have shown, human behaviour is highly complex. Human physiology is equally complex, as are group benefit plans. With this in mind, I believe we need to hold the industry to a high standard – making sure wellness-rewards programs show clear and powerful evidence that they can inspire real change and help us create a movement to reach our national goals.

A true revolution in health will depend on our success in motivating and supporting Canadians to become more active. We owe it to our nation.

1  2018,
2 2014,
3 2014,
4 2017, Canadian Health Measures Survey: Activity monitor data, Released: 2017-04-19
5 2017,
6 2017,
7 2016,