Business of Well-being

Social Influence and Healthy Behavior Change

"I have been encouraging my fellow drivers who smoke to quit and I feel good being able to support them."

-Jimmie at Sheetz, Altoona, PA

"With the support of my wife and coworkers, I started working out and eating better."

- Ron at the St Cloud Fire Department, St Cloud, FL

We are social animals and easily fall prey to the power of social influence. Social influence has been tested many times in many ways, and the research seems to indicate that people do not want to deviate from the norm. While we have evolved from "monkey see, monkey do," we are still social animals.

For example, in the book Change Anything, we learn of a study by Nicholas Christakis, a Harvard sociologist, who discovered that obesity is at least partly infectious, in effect; people appear to catch it from each other. He found that having obese friends increases your chances of following suit by a whopping 57 percent. The authors of Change Anything concluded that "you don't have to be a social scientist to know that the people around you influence you for both good and ill."

Healthy lifestyles are contagious too, especially, as we have found, in the case of on-site health and wellness centers.

On-site health and wellness centers are part of a growing prevention and wellness movement. According to a recent survey report from health and human resources consultant Mercer, 26 percent of employers with 500-4,999 employees, and 52 percent of employers with 5,000 or more employees, were expected to have on-site clinics before the end of 2014.

There are several approaches to on-site healthcare, but the model we found to be most effective is population health risk management, including health assessments, primary care, health coaching, and chronic condition management services.

Population health risk management emphasizes patient empowerment and a holistic approach to health, and focuses on creating trusting relationships between clinicians and the patients. It's not about treating patients only when they are sick, but rather helping them achieve their best possible health.

With the power of social influence in mind, in 2014 we experimented with a new program at our on-site health centers called "Healthy Like Me". The idea was to start a movement of individuals who would tell their stories and influence others in creating a new norm for healthy living.

The new norm would showcase individuals who grasped their own personal power in addressing health issues and, through health coaching and the support of their employers and coworkers, made life-changing improvements to their own health.

Our goal was to see if we could get patients to internalize social influence, which Harvard psychologist Herbert Kelman described as accepting a belief or behavior and agreeing both publicly and privately. Recognizing the power social influence can have, we kicked off Healthy Like Me by soliciting success stories from on-site health centers across the country.

The stories were clinically validated and the participants signed a release of information in accordance with HIPAA authorizing us to publish their story. From all of the submissions we received, we selected 10 stories to highlight each quarter. These stories received a financial stipend and were promoted on a website, and included in site posters and flyers shared with on-site health centers across the country.

The first year of Healthy Like Me concluded in November 2014. The level of participation and the results that were reported in the shared stories exceeded our expectations. In total, the participants reported 294 healthy behavior changes (an average of 2 healthy behavior changes per participant).

Some patients lost 100 pounds, one woman reversed a downward health spiral after she lost her husband to cancer, several patients quit smoking. To call them inspiring is an understatement. Here are some highlights of the year:

  • 37 employer sites participated
  • 161 people told their health story
  • 106 people lost weight
  • 67 of the people who lost weight reported their actual weight loss
  • Individuals reported an average loss of 39 pounds
  • 18 quit smoking
  • 66 improved their lab results
  • 111 changed their eating habits
  • 99 got active

While the numbers tell an important story, the actual words of the participants are even more compelling:

"With all of the support, I know I can achieve my goal and be much healthier."

-Sue at Tufts University, Medford, MA

Our Healthy Like Me experiment was more successful than we could have imagined, and we attribute that to the power of social influence. Yes, health transformation begins with personal motivation, but social influence cannot be underestimated as a tool to spur change.

It becomes much easier for a person to overcome their reluctance to improving their health when they can see the success their friends and colleagues are having. In our experience, Healthy Like Me had a snowball effect as patients showed increased interest in the 2015 Healthy Like Me campaign just a few weeks into its unveiling.

This is an effective way of increasing engagement and providing employees a channel for long term and sustainable health improvement. We would encourage employers with on-site health centers to adopt a similar program of your own.

The first step is harnessing the power of social influence.

About the Author

Tracey Moran is Vice President of Marketing at Marathon Health, a worksite healthcare company that specializes in total population. For more information visit:

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