Business of Well-being

Spread the Health

Give me 15 seconds and some hand sanitizer, and I feel like I have done something good for my health. Give me a coworker passing by my office with a nagging cough and I suddenly feel a whole lot worse. While most of us clearly understand how germs are spread and how to prevent the basic cold or flu, increasing evidence suggests the conversations and social connections around the office might be just as important to employee health as, well, hand sanitizer!

Let me take you back to some research that hit the news a few years ago. Dr. Nicholas Christakis and Dr. James Fowler claimed obesity is contagious. This finding created quite a stir in the media. While the study seemed absurd at first, their findings were hard to refute.

The social connections we have with other people, including our coworkers, may have a significant role in our lifestyle choices-both healthy and not so healthy. Consider this: in the book, "Connected, the Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Change our Lives," Dr. Christakis and Dr. Fowler state that everything we do or say can impact our social network of friends, family and coworkers. Put yourself in these work-related scenarios and think about what you might do:

  • You are having lunch in the company cafe with the chair of your workplace wellness committee. You need to choose between a side order of fries or a side salad. Your colleague chooses the salad. What do you choose?
  • You would like to quit smoking but most of your coworkers smoke. They always stop by your office to see if you want to join them on their smoke breaks. Do you join them or let them know you are trying to quit?
  • Your new office is on the second floor of the building. You notice most of your coworkers take the stairs instead of the elevator each day. What do you decide to do? How much are you influenced by those around you?

Fitness, nutrition and smoking are not the only behaviors that can be contagious. The authors also report other behaviors, such as getting recommended health screenings, adhering to doctors' recommendations and getting an annual flu shot, can be heavily influenced by your social networks.

Dr. Christakis and Dr. Fowler are quick to note that social networks are not the only determinants to our health. There are many other factors and influences, but since most of us spend the majority of our waking hours at our workplaces, our coworkers inevitably influence our health.

If creating contagious wellness is so important to our health, how can you spread it throughout your workplace? Let me give you an example from our office. When we ramped up our employee wellness efforts at the David Martin Agency last year, the candy bowls were rampant around the office. You could find one at every turn.

You could even recognize the familiar sound of someone rooting around for the best chocolate from down the hall. Although we did not set out to banish the candy bowls completely, most of them quickly vanished (or took on more covert hiding places) in the wake of our renewed interest in health. The conversation has changed around our office too.

More conversations are around our attempts to stay healthy. One of the most popular events in the office is our quarterly salad potluck. Everyone brings an ingredient and we all dine together in our conference room. Good healthy food and good healthy social connection.

In recognition of the power of social connection, we even set one of our wellness program goals to be "having fun together as a team." Here are some other things you might want to try as you create contagious wellness around the office:

  • Solicit and share testimonials from employees who have made lifestyle changes to improve their health. Nothing is as inspirational as knowing someone who has had a personal victory. You also could consider having these employees speak about their accomplishment at a staff meeting or health fair.
  • Host employee volunteer activities. Go out and give back to others as part of a work team.
  • Register for a family-friendly fitness activity held in or near your worksites. This could be a 5K run/walk, a fitness event demonstration, or even something more unique. There are many non-competitive adventure races cropping up all over the country. Employees in our office participated in an adventure race last year called, "Go Commando." The race was a 5K course with obstacles, such as hay bales to jump over and a swamp to slog through. Over half the employees in our office participated. Some walked, some ran and some walked around a few of the obstacles, but everyone finished. The team photos from this event still circulate around the office and the "survival stories" have become legendary. We will do it again!

Whatever the event, encourage employees and their families to participate together. Why not spread some the spirit of wellness to your employees' families? Chances are, you cover many of these dependents on your health plan and have a vested interest in their health too.

  • Create a social networking site just for your employees. A couple examples of free social networking sites include (focused specifically on health and wellness) and (applies more broadly to any type of social networking).
  • Email or post fun and edgy health facts in places where employees gather (break room, water cooler, coffee machine, etc.). These conversation starters just might generate some healthy buzz!

There are many more ideas out there to help you take advantage of opportunities to spread some wellness around. Also remember that unhealthy behaviors can spread around the office just as quickly as the good ones, so keep wellness front and center! Healthy conversations have to start somewhere-why not with you? Whenever you find yourself in proximity with your coworkers back at your office, keep the hand sanitizer handy, but focus even more on spreading a rampant case of employee health!

About The Author

Traci Kubisiak serves as the Wellness Consultant for the David Martin Agency in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The David Martin Agency is a member of the Benefit Advisors Network, an exclusive, national network of independent employee benefit brokerage and consulting companies known for their knowledge of the industry, ethical approach, business acumen, and strategic vision. For more information or to contact the author, please visit: or

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