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A behavioural insights perspective to curb Coronavirus


The Coronavirus and human psychology has brought Australia ‘The Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020.’  Besides offering an interesting case study in human behaviour, this saga provides many lessons in behavioural insights for business.

So how can we apply behavioural science to have a positive health impact on our people and business?

A view through the behavioural insights lens…

Behavioural insights offers a powerful platform to drive workplace strategies to influence desired behaviours from large groups of people.

This is a perfect approach to identify practical steps that we can take to target business risks arising from Coronavirus that threaten our work and lives.  Today, these risks impact our people through them becoming unnecessarily sick and fearful.

Why are people getting sick and fearful?

Our hand-washing behaviours will impact how many people become sick. 

One important determinant in accelerating the spread of infectious diseases is poor hand-washing rates [3]. Hand-washing is effective at removing viruses from hands. This can have meaningful downstream effects in reducing employee productivity through missed work and poorer performance. One concerning study found that only a staggering 5% of Americans washed their hands in accordance with the standards of the Centre for Disease Control [4].  As the close quarters and prolonged exposure of workplaces create an ideal context for infectious diseases to spread, poor hand-washing behaviours become paramount in minimising the risk of spreading common colds and more serious diseases.

Misunderstanding how likely we are to contract Coronavirus makes us scared.

The uncertainty in contracting a disease, its severity, and most publicised consequences (e.g., death) can prompt fear in people. Fear is contagious.

Problematically, we have difficulty identifying what to do when confronted with an opaque threat such as contracting Coronavirus. When coupled with our super-human drive social connectedness, this not only accelerates the spread of viruses, but also (mis)information and counterproductive behaviour.

Case-in-point: ‘The Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020’ [5].

What next?

We’ve isolated 2 behavioural insights…so what’s next?

Improve hand-washing behaviour

Employers can make small changes to their workplace to environment to influence hand-washing behaviour.  We refer to such small changes as “nudges”, defined as easily deployed and at a low-cost to influence a target behaviour such as hand-washing.

For example, a study (Blackwell, Goya-Tocchetto, and Sturman, 2018) found that arrow-shaped stickers placed on the floor from the toilet to the sink increased hand-washing by up to 15% [6].

Another approach is to make handing washing less effort. If warm water and soap aren’t readily available, finding alternative means to clean one’s hands is required. This may mean providing noticeable (e.g., colourfully decorated) alcohol-based hand sanitisers and dispensers in easily accessible spots within high traffic areas.

Target fear with helpful information 

If fear and uncertainty is a driver of undesirable workplace behaviour such as absenteeism, employers can provide clarity and certainty. Specifically, clarity can be offered around (a) actual risk and (b) appropriate behaviours to engage in given these risks.

To improve clarity and ease of understanding, these guides can take many forms. One example is providing simple ‘Yes/No’ questions which can offer a diagnostic to educate employees on symptoms and risk factors they are exposed to, and providing expert advice in the form of concrete actionable steps to protect oneself, family, and colleagues.

To increase the effectiveness of these checklists being considered in the first place, they can include cues to the authority of the source providing these recommendations. This can increase the weighting, trustworthiness, and significance of presented information.

Driving Desired Behaviour

Behavioural insights can be an invaluable approach to drive desirable behaviours in mitigating disease transmission.

The effects of applying these strategies that are scientifically grounded don’t stop there. These approaches and learnings can be embedded within any business to drive targeted employee and customer desired behaviours and outcomes.

Learn more

To learn more about its impact and Mapien’s Behavioural Insights Methodology and Toolkit, contact Isaac Baker. In the mean time, implement the recommendations in this article and let Isaac know your progress.

Read our recent article on Coronavirus and its Implications in the Workplace and contact us if you need help in determining your obligations.

Written by
Isaac Baker
Isaac has a thorough understanding of the science of human behaviour and creates effective, specialised interventions to solve complex people problems.




[3] Liu, et al (2016). Protective effect of hand-washing and good hygienic habits against seasonal influenza: A case-control study, Medicine, 95(11), e3046.


[4] Borchgrevink, Cha, & Kim (2013). Hand washing practices in a college town environment, Journal of Environmental Health, 75(8), 18-24.


[6] Blackwell, Goya-Tocchetto , & Sturman (2018). Nudges in the restroom: How hand-washing can be impacted by environmental cues, Journal of Behavioral Economics for Policy, 2(2), 41-47.