How using social media can improve the effectiveness of employee wellness programs Featured

2:09pm EDT September 1, 2011
How using social media can improve the effectiveness of employee wellness programs

Studies show that people are more likely to eat right or exercise if their friends, family and co-workers do so, too.

As an employer, that is something you can take advantage of to encourage healthy behavior in your employees. Many of them are already using social networking of some kind, so why not leverage that into your employee wellness program? Think of it as positive peer pressure.

“If employees are given access to a social platform as part of a wellness program, they feel more empowered to participate,” says Jamie Curts, vice president of business development with Spectrum Health Systems. “It adds a level of interaction with their peers.”

For example, employees could invite other employees on the network to a wellness event — such as a 5-K road race or a yoga class — then post photos or videos from the event, encouraging more employees to join them next time.

Smart Business spoke with Curts about how to change your employees’ status updates from “Just ordered a pizza” to “Just got back from the gym.”

How can social media tools impact participation in employee wellness programs?

There is more evidence than ever that shows peer support is a critical and effective strategy for ongoing health care and sustained behavior change. Combine this knowledge with the fact that Facebook alone has more than 500 million users, and it just makes sense to incorporate social media tools into employee wellness programs.

According to research by Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, a professor at Harvard University’s medical school, people are more likely to eat right or exercise if family, friends and co-workers are doing so, as well.

How is this trend changing the way that employee wellness programs work?

While there is an increasing trend, only a small percentage of companies have actually put these tools in place. According to a 2010 survey by Towers Watson, only 9 percent of 588 companies surveyed use social media in their wellness initiatives. However, 42 percent of those in the survey plan to incorporate some element of social networking into their wellness initiatives by 2012.

We are beginning to see the engagement and the perception of employer-sponsored wellness programs shift among employees. With access to a social platform, employees feel more empowered to participate and share ideas among their peers, instead of just feeling as though they are participating in a company-sponsored ‘program.’ There will be more organically grown programs among smaller groups of employees with similar interests, needs and goals.

Which social media tools are particularly well suited to work with wellness programs?

There are many options available for employers; the key is finding the right platform for your organization. Many employers use Facebook and Twitter because they are already familiar with the functionality and capabilities. These are also inexpensive options for employers with a small budget.

If the employer already provides an intranet site, social media tools can be easily added to the benefits portion. Employees can be recruited to write blogs, Twitter feeds can be integrated, pictures and videos of wellness events can be posted and employees can post invitations to health and wellness groups and events.

Most wellness providers can also provide a customized platform for your organization. This platform can be branded to your organization, which will give it a special look and feel that supports your initiatives. This option appeals to many employers and employees because it is managed by a third party.

What are some examples of ways social media tools can be used with employee wellness programs?

One of the most popular worksite wellness activities is the companywide weight loss challenge. Participants are often encouraged and educated through company e-mails, posters and ‘lunch and learn’ presentations.

But very few organizations provide a tool for participants in these challenges to communicate their successes and struggles among each other. Not only will using social media as a tool to supplement the challenge help with the outcomes of the six-week-long weight loss program, the momentum can continue throughout the entire year.

How can social media tools be used to improve employees’ engagement with their wellness programs?

Social networking tools allow employees to directly invite and challenge each other to participate in wellness events, which are an effective way to increase participation. Senior leadership support is one of the most critical components of a worksite wellness program. However, employees are much more likely to participate if they see that their peers are involved.

What potential pitfalls should companies be aware of when adding a social media component to their wellness programs?

It is easy to add a company wellness group to Facebook and Twitter, but employers need to be aware of the limitations in regulating a public forum. There is less control as to who joins the group and the comments that are posted on the site. Employers can have more control by adding tools to an existing intranet site or by working with a third-party wellness provider.

Employers also need to know that social media tools are not the only solution to their wellness needs. This is just one tool that should be a piece of a larger strategy.

Jamie Curts is vice president of business development with Spectrum Health Systems. Reach her at jamie.curts@spectrumhs.com or (317) 573-7600.