From the January 2010 issue of Benefits Selling Magazine •Subscribe!

The power of connectivity

Frustrated by chronically low participation in company wellness programs, many employers have turned to financial incentives to drive employee engagement. 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 Health2 Resources. Out of desperation, some employers have paid up to $4,000 for simply completing a health risk questionnaire.

A growing number of companies, however, are turning to a dramatically more affordable and effective solution: social incentives.

As social networking goes mainstream, benefits and wellness professionals have begun to harness the power of connectivity to drive participation, long-term engagement and outcomes in their existing employee wellness programs. These employers are empowering their employees to form teams, create challenges, join groups and share information in a manner that makes wellness 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. 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 particular company, 84 percent of employees who participated in a competitive, team-based wellness program reported that it was the first time they had signed up to take advantage of the company's numerous offerings.

Boosting retention
It is difficult for wellness managers to constantly think of new ideas to keep a wellness program fresh, relevant and suitable to everyone, since employee interests and goals are 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 80 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 34 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 economy, paying employees to improve their health can be a cost-prohibitive proposition for many employers. There is also research showing that the 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 sends the message 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.

As the popularity of social networking platforms 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.

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. Many companies already have embraced the concept of social networking in wellness to achieve these goals. Your company cannot afford to wait to join them.

Read other articles from this month's disease management special section:

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