Business of Well-being

The Home Social Networks Help Employees See Health as a Top Priority

It was Walking Wednesday, part of an integrated workplace wellness program that encourages employees to take an active walk outside during their lunch hour. Trouble was, it was raining cats and dogs with thundering dark skies. One of the walkers sent a quick e-mail to fellow associates suggesting that perhaps the group could walk inside the building. Within a few minutes, a long snake of walkers was winding through the cubicles.

On this day, it may have been easy and likely for individuals to ignore their commitment to participate in Walking Wednesdays, but it was nearly impossible not to jump up from your seat and join the group. The moral of this story? Maybe social networking is much more than keeping in touch with friends on Facebook or Twitter. From a wellness perspective, researchers have shown consistently that diet programs that incorporate a social element into their rules and routine, like group meetings, or peer support systems, are generally much more successful than programs that lack a social component.

As human beings, we have a great potential to influence others, and we also have the propensity to be influenced by others. When it comes to establishing or enhancing workplace wellness programs, more and more benefits professionals realize that social networking needs to be a critical building block of a successful program. "People are connected, and so their health is connected," says Nicholas Christakis, M.D., one of the leading medical researchers in the country.

In a study Dr. Christakis conducted with James H. Fowler, Ph.D., the researchers found that social contagion played a critical role in increasing an individual's risk of becoming obese when a person in her/her social network becomes obese. When a spouse is obese, the person's risk of becoming obese increase 37%, with an obese sibling the increase is 40%, and having a mutual friend who is obese raises the risk factor by 171%, according to the study entitled "The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network Over 32 years" published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Clearly, the power of social influence in changing behaviors needs to be unleashed, especially in workplace wellness programs where people spend 30+ hours together each week. In most workplace situations, naturally formed networks or teams are bound by some common element. Often, the common element is age, family status, common interests, or simply professional affiliations that allow members to easily share information.

If you work with a population that already has well-established social networks, introducing a wellness program with a social network element will be fun right from the start. People who already share many values will be enthusiastic to form teams and embark on a friendly competition to lose weight, eat healthier, or incorporate regular exercise and movement into their daily routine. In some cases you may need to take a more active role in defining and supporting teams, but the essence of a social network lies in its members' interest and commitment to a better way of life.

Once you identify the champions for healthier living, all you have to do is give them the tools they need to help motivate their peers. A number of excellent programs can be incorporated into a workplace wellness initiative to establish or strengthen the social networking power at any organization. When you evaluate options for your population, look for on-site or online programs that would work well for employees of all fitness levels.

For employees who are already connected via e-mail and other social networking sites, it is important to offer tools that allow them to exchange information, share goals and accomplishments, and encourage each other. Teamwork sometimes needs a little prodding in the beginning, but celebrating results will keep the spirit of the competition and challenge alive, especially if you continually communicate why changing behaviors is the best way to achieve long-term benefits.

About the Author

Colleen Reilly is the founder and president of Total Well-Being, a leading provider of workplace wellness programs with a holistic approach to wellness-providing services that motivate employees to achieve their physical, financial, personal, and professional wellness goals.

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