Worksite Wellness Networks: Good Health Can Be Contagious

Social connections increasingly are being used for health promotion

By Sarah Monley Nov 4, 2013

Sarah Monley

Family and social connections can influence how people spend their time and money and their ability to land a job. But friends and family can also affect employees' health. A study on obesity and social networks published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who had an immediate family member or close friend who was obese were 57 percent more likely to become obese themselves. Similarly, according to a study on smoking cessation published in that publication, people working in small companies were 34 percent more likely to quit smoking if one of their co-workers quit the habit.

Social connections also affect our sense of personal satisfaction. A Gallup poll on emotional well-being revealed that six hours of social interaction a day is associated with significantly more happiness and less stress.

For average working adults who spend almost 2,000 hours on the job each year, co-workers often become part of their social network. Employers who recognize the significance of social connections—both personal and professional—are increasingly using strategies that capitalize on this factor for workplace health promotion. One such approach is to develop a network of wellness advocates, often referred to as wellness champions.

Launching Wellness Networks

A wellness network is a team of wellness champions within a workplace who are charged with increasing understanding of the worksite wellness program and promoting healthier norms among their peer groups. A recent study by StayWell Health Management found that wellness champions can influence the outcomes of employee health management programs. Companies that use an onsite wellness-champion network saw an improvement in health risks for older adults.

Wellness-network champions have the opportunity to influence behavior by visibly demonstrating a healthy lifestyle and by educating others about available wellness program resources.

Defining Responsibilities

The wellness network typically follows parameters developed for a specific workplace culture, and determining the focus of the network is important to ensuring success. Organizations vary in their approach toward network structure. For example, companies may have champions who are strictly responsible for wellness program communications and peer education, or wellness leaders who have more defined expectations that are often part of their formal job descriptions. Still others may delegate champions who are responsible for program implementation (sign-ups and registrations, recruitment, event check-ins and so on).

Champion networks can include committees that have senior organizational leaders who make program design decisions and establish companywide wellness policies. Committees can be mobilized to implement specific onsite activities or to communicate important information.

Regardless of the network structure, wellness champions should receive program information and resources (both materials and financial support) for implementing onsite activities such as:

  • Sharing information/updates (presenting at staff meetings and training managers).

  • Implementing campaigns and visibly participating in them.

  • Providing a presence via an information table in the workplace and at employee events.

  • Updating onsite communications such as bulletin boards, Intranet sites and handouts.

  • Hosting events on good nutrition, such as a lunchtime potluck, or distributing meeting and event-catering guidelines.

  • Organizing physical activities such as corporate team participation in local races or bike rides.

  • Hosting stress-management events like chair massages, yoga and meditation.

  • Coordinating educational and promotional events, including onsite biometric screenings and health fairs.

  • Scheduling lunch-and-learns with local speakers who educate workers about benefits including the employee assistance program and work-life offerings.

Setting the Stage for Success

Before establishing a wellness network, consider what its structure, focus and parameters will be. In addition, formally address four important questions.

  1. Who are your top candidates at each network level? Consider employees with the following characteristics:

    • Social skills. Consider employees who naturally make connections with a wide variety of co-workers and who are well-known throughout the company. These employees should be easy to approach, have strong communications skills, be well liked and show compassion toward their colleagues.

    • Time availability. Choose individuals who will be willing and able to dedicate time to the role. Provide clear expectations about the responsibilities of network membership and how expectations fluctuate based on program-year initiatives.

    • Health interests. Employees who demonstrate a personal interest in healthy lifestyles, regardless of their current health status, can be excellent advocates for healthy behavior change.
  1. ​What roles and responsibilities will you assign to your wellness-network members at various levels? This decision is closely tied to the outcomes you hope to achieve.

  2. What, if any, internal communication systems need to be in place? For instance:
    • Establish a communication structure for the network based on empowering employees with information worth sharing among their peers.

    • Encourage network members to reach out to workers at their location, and keep management informed about employees’ feedback. 

    • Consider establishing reporting metrics that provide wellness champions with known targets and a consistent structure for reporting their initiatives. For example, you may choose to tie results of the wellness network to overarching health management goals or to the three pillars of a comprehensive wellness program (communications, culture and incentives).

    More specifically, metrics for your wellness network may include:
    • Program participation rates and actions that drive them higher (or lower).

    • Customer-service inquiries and feedback or lack thereof.

    • Changing cultural norms, such as food orders for meetings and events, and vending machine sales.
  1. How soon can we get started? The amount of time it takes to get your wellness network up and running will depend on how you design your program and how you enlist the resources to build it. For instance, if you ask for volunteers or employee nominations, the process may take longer than if you work with management to identify and enlist people directly.

Likewise, the number of locations or departments where wellness champions are recruited will affect implementation time.

If you use the services of an employee health program provider, discuss with the provider how to best establish a wellness network that strategically supports your overall program goals while flourishing in your workplace culture.

Sarah Monley is a program manager at StayWell Health Management. She is responsible for the day-to-day delivery of comprehensive health management programs and for establishing stakeholder support to achieve participant involvement. Prior to joining StayWell, she designed and conducted healthy-life-skills lesson plans and delivered health seminars in Armenia, where she served as a community health educator with the U.S. Peace Corps.

Related SHRM Articles:

Groups Offer Guidance for Biometric Screenings, SHRM Online Benefits, October 2013

Wellness Tips that Lowered Costs, SHRM Online Benefits, October 2013

Health Culture Improves Employee Performance, SHRM Online Benefits, October 2013

From a Candy Culture to Health-Obsessed: A Wellness Convert's Tale, SHRM Online Benefits, March 2013

Launching a 'Winning' Wellness Contest, SHRM Online Benefits, December 2012

Quick Links:

SHRM Online Benefits page

SHRM Online Health Care Reform Resource Page

SHRM Online Wellness Programs Resource Page

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