By Wendy Lawrence, University of Southampton
The main causes of death and disease in society today are influenced by our lifestyle choices, and there is a growing focus on ways to improve health behaviours. Front-line practitioners, particularly those working in health, social and community care roles, are a key resource for supporting behavioural change. Routine appointments offer opportunities to initiate conversations about behaviour change every week, but many practitioners feel that they lack the knowledge and skills necessary to provide behaviour change support. This can reduce our confidence for having conversations with clients or patients about potentially sensitive topics, including smoking, weight loss or alcohol intake.
By Barbara Mullan, Curtin University, Australia
Extent of the problem
Every year, one in 10 people worldwide (approximately 600 million people) become ill after eating contaminated food, and as many as 420,000 people die. There are vast geographical differences in where these instances occur, with African, South-East Asian, and Eastern Mediterranean regions bearing the highest burden of foodborne disease (further detail about the foodborne disease burden by region can be found here). In addition to these geographical differences, there are also vast differences in the types of agents that are responsible for foodborne disease (e.g., viruses, bacteria, parasites).
By Felix Naughton, University of East Anglia, UK
Between 25-50% of female smokers quit smoking after they discover they are pregnant. But why do the remainder continue to smoke throughout their pregnancy?
Do they not know that smoking during pregnancy is harmful? They usually do. One of our UK studies, that included pregnant women both motivated and unmotivated to quit, found 99% agreed to some degree with the statement ‘smoking during pregnancy can cause serious harm to my baby’ with around 75% agreeing very much or extremely. Yet less than 10% of them were abstinent 12 weeks later. While making a quit attempt is more likely among those with strong ‘harm beliefs’ about smoking in pregnancy, it does not appear to increase the chances of success.
By Amy O’Donnell, Newcastle University, UK
Levels of drinking have fallen recently in some parts of Europe, particularly amongst young people. However, excessive alcohol consumption remains a major risk factor for poor health and early death. Providing simple brief advice to those identified as heavy drinkers can help reduce the amount of alcohol people consume, especially when delivered by primary care clinicians such as general practitioners (GPs) or nurses. Alcohol brief advice involves a short, evidence-based, structured conversation that aims to motivate and support a patient to consider a change in their drinking behaviour to reduce their risk of harm. We still haven’t fully identified the key ingredients of these conversations, but providing personalised feedback on a patient’s alcohol consumption, and encouraging them to self-monitor their drinking, seem to be particularly effective parts of the package.
By Dr Federica Picariello and Professor Rona Moss-Morris, King’s College London, the UK.
Within weeks around the world, daily life dramatically changed, and uncertainty seized our future in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond the immediate and urgent need to slow down the spread of COVID-19 through rapid and widespread behavioural change (i.e., self-isolation, social distancing, and quarantine), the impact on mental and physical wellbeing needs to be considered to allow early intervention and mitigate the longer-term consequences.
By Dominika Kwasnicka, SWPS University, Poland and University of Melbourne, Australia
The ultimate goal of health promotion programmes is to promote long-lasting change and health care professionals can play a role and help patients to improve their health outcomes and maintaining behaviour change. We know that health behaviour change is difficult to initiate and it can be even more challenging to maintain in the long term. One big question in health psychology is why maintenance is so difficult.
By Thomas L. Webb, Department of Psychology, The University of Sheffield, the UK
How are you getting on with your goal to reduce the amount of sugar that you eat and lose 10kg? Chances are that you don’t really know – or even want to know. In situations like these, people tend to behave like ostriches and bury their heads in the sand, intentionally avoiding or rejecting information that would help them to monitor their goal progress. Research on this “ostrich problem” suggests that people often do not keep track of their progress (e.g., step on weighing scales, read the packets of food that they buy), in part, because doing so can make them feel bad about themselves – e.g., they realise that they weigh more than hoped and that they still consume too much sugar. However, theory and evidence suggest that keeping track of progress helps people to identify discrepancies between their current and desired states that warrant action. The implication is that avoiding monitoring makes it difficult to identify the need to act and the most appropriate way to do so. The ostrich problem therefore represents an opportunity for healthcare professionals (and others) to help people to monitor their progress and capitalise on the benefits of so doing. Perhaps not surprisingly then, we found good evidence that prompting people to monitor their progress helps people to achieve goals across a range of domains.
By Shane Timmons, Economic and Social Research Institute, Ireland
Governments worldwide have mobilised to try to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, but the behaviour of individuals will be vital to their success. We – the Behavioural Research Unit at the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin – are working with Ireland’s Department of Health to inform their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of this work, we’ve reviewed over 100 scientific papers and have begun testing ways to best communicate with the public, with lessons relevant for health psychology practitioners. In our review, we focus on literature relevant for three areas that have formed the basis for public health messaging in multiple countries: hand hygiene, face touching and isolation. We also address broader literatures on how to motivate helpful behaviour and communicate effectively in a crisis.
By Nadia Garnefski and Vivian Kraaij, Department of Clinical Psychology, Leiden University, The Netherlands
“Rob has just heard that he has HIV (negative event). He thinks that he is the one to blame for this (self-blame) and he avoids seeing his friends (withdrawal). The situation makes him sad. When sitting at home, he cannot stop thinking about his feelings (rumination) and believes that what has happened to him is a complete disaster (catastrophizing). Because he feels sad, he has little energy. As a result, he withdraws even more. This makes him even sadder. In this way, Rob is drawn into a downward spiral.”
Peter Harris and Ian Hadden, The Self-Affirmation Research Group, School of Psychology, University of Sussex, UK
Have you ever been reluctant to face up to something you’d rather ignore? Maybe your fondness for something bad for you that you eat too often or your tendency to avoid health check-ups? Well, you’re not alone. Most of us think we are generally quite sensible and competent people. So, being told that something we do is not really sensible or competent can be quite challenging. As a result, we can be pretty skilled at resisting messages we’d prefer not to hear.