Business of Well-being

Using Social Networking to Power Your Employee Wellness Program

Social Networking

For a myriad of reasons, it's now crystal clear that social networking has gone mainstream. The 35+ age group is the fastest growing demographic online and Facebook now has 350 million users -- not to mention the explosion of the widely popular business and social networking micro-blogging site, Twitter.

Amidst this growth, there's increasing evidence that social networking is making its way into companies across the country to augment many human resources functions. For one, more than 45 percent of employers are now using social networking tools to research job candidates according to a CareerBuilder survey.

Benefits and wellness professionals are also harnessing the power of connectivity to drive participation, long-term engagement and successful outcomes in employee wellness programs. This growing trend comes at a time when many are turning to financial incentives to drive employee engagement in these programs.

In fact, the average annual incentive for wellness programs rose to $329 per employee in 2009, according to a joint survey by the National Association of Manufacturers and Health 2 Resources. Employers focusing on the power of social incentives over financial incentives, however, are finding that they are empowering their employees to effectively communicate and share information in a manner that makes wellness more fun and engaging.

Maximizing Participation

Social networking tools enable colleagues to directly invite and challenge each other to participate in a wellness intervention, such as a weight loss challenge, walking group or health fair. This peer-to-peer dynamic creates a grassroots, viral approach to recruitment, and it's proving to be a more effective mechanism to drive involvement.

While the support of senior leadership is important to the success of any company's wellness initiative, employees are much more likely to participate in a wellness program when personally invited by a trusted colleague than they are by simply walking past a poster designed by the human resources department.

At one distribution company, eighty-four percent of employees who participated in a competitive, team-based wellness program reported that it was the very first time they had signed up to take advantage of the company's numerous offerings.

Boosting Retention

It is difficult for wellness managers to think of new ideas to keep a wellness program fresh, relevant and suitable to everyone, since employee interests and goals are different and constantly changing. Employers can "crowd-source" their annual wellness calendar by giving employees access to social media tools that enable them to create their own groups based on any interests (healthy recipe-sharing club, softball team, lunch-time walking group, etc.).

Employees can also  use these tools to share information such as recipes, upcoming events, educational articles and motivational messages with one another. This customized, employee-driven content increases the relevancy and appeal of a corporate wellness program.

Participating alongside colleagues also provides employees with motivation, peer support and accountability, all of which are crucial to driving long-term engagement. As a result, some employers are seeing long-term engagement rates as high as eighty percent.

Achieving Behavior Change

The latest research from Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, MD, PhD, MPH, an internist and social scientist with Harvard Medical School who conducts research on social factors that affect health, shows that the people around us have a tremendous impact on our health. When people lose weight, quit smoking or increase their exercise, the people in their trusted social network, such as colleagues, are more likely to do so as well.

For example, if someone quits smoking, his or her co-workers are thirty-four percent more likely to quit as well. This is because the people we interact with on a regular basis influence our perception of social norms. By uniting employees and encouraging them to make healthy commitments together, employers can harness this network effect to spread healthy behaviors at the workplace and increase the likelihood that their employees will succeed.

When employees begin to make a shared commitment to being healthy, they begin to throw away traditions like "muffin Mondays" and "bagel Fridays" and start to bring fruit to the office, take the stairs instead of the elevator, and park at the far end of the parking lot in order to accumulate more physical activity.

Saving Money

Given the current economic climate, paying employees to improve their health can be a cost-prohibitive proposition for many employers. There is also research showing that the compensation effect wears off quickly, people expect increasing amounts of money for changing their behavior, and that once the incentive is taken away participants often revert back to old habits.

The good news for employers is that social incentives are free - and far more powerful at creating long-term, sustainable behavior change. Creating a supportive environment of peers working together demonstrates that everyone has a stake in the health of the workforce and helps tap into the intrinsic motivation that we all have to be healthy.

Support from colleagues is the most effective way to encourage healthy habits. A recent Watson Wyatt Worldwide study concluded that companies with robust wellness programs achieve greater financial success. But a robust wellness program requires high participation, long-term engagement, and clinically-significant outcomes.  

As social networking continues to spread, employers must evaluate how they can harness the power of these tools to improve the health of their employees and their bottom line. Many companies have already embraced the concept of social networking in wellness to achieve these goals. Your company cannot afford to wait to join them.

About the Author

Rajiv Kumar is the Founder and Chief Clinical Officer of Shape Up The Nation, the first wellness company to use social networking to change behavior and reduce health care costs. Shape Up The Nation's evidence-based social networking platform is used by more than 80 leading self-insured employers and health plans, including CVS Caremark, National Grid, Cleveland Clinic and Medtronic.

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