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the benefits of online employee wellness groups

October 30, 2012

in behavior change,social media,wellness

in an earlier post i shared a story from kris steen, a recruiter who discovered exercising gave a surprising assist to her career advancement. i met kris in a private facebook group for the members of an online 12-week fitness challenge.

this challenge provides the other members and me with monthly strength training and weekly high-intensity interval training (HIIT) plans. if we adhere to the challenge’s schedule, we end up exercising six times per week: three strength training sessions and three HIIT sessions. the strength training sessions include military pushups, sissy squats and bulgarian sissy squats, the HIITs burpees and a host of other exercises i’d never heard of before starting the challenge—and sometimes wish i’d still not heard of. as we complete our sessions, we post “accountability updates” to the challenge’s private facebook group.

i joined the challenge primarily because my neighbor’s the founder. it didn’t hurt that i was bored with my current exercise routine, either. but there was a third reason for my joining: i was curious how this operation—particularly the private social group—worked. pew and many, many others have shown how social groups, or “patient communities,” as they’re often called, support people coping with a health condition or those responsible for their care. and i’ve written about the need and the possibility for online communities within a company’s wellness program, but i’ve not experienced one firsthand. joining this group was one way to see for myself.

lessons gleaned from a 9-month butt kicking

it’s been nine months since i signed up. since then, i’ve learned a few things:

  • HIIT can kick your butt
  • you can dramatically change your physical appearance even after you’d long given up hope
  • workouts don’t need to be 40 to 60 minutes to be effective
  • accountability to others makes you “show up”
  • a mixed group allows for inspiration gained and given
  • being part of a group lends strength and builds empathy

these last three bullets are the ones i want to dive into, because they’re the ones that matter to employers. anyone who wants to personally know more about the challenge can hit me up in the comments.

emotional ballast and empathy built

the women participating in the challenge represent a broad range of fitness and exercise experience. there are women grappling with weight issues, women who are serious bodybuilders, and women like me—just looking to mix it up a bit. there’s also a range of ages, from twenties and early thirties up to women in their mid- to late-fifties.

as with any group made up of strangers, we initially discussed only the niceties, or we posted our accountability updates to the group and moved on with our day. within the first months of participating, however, women started to share their physical transformations—and their emotional ones. one woman gained self-esteem with each pound shed. she spoke of taking on crippling family issues. another divulged her battle with an eating disorder and found comfort and confidence within the group. and yet another shared her daughter’s triumphal transformation story through photos of her daughter morbidly obese straight on through to posing in fitness competitions.

several of the serious bodybuilders motivated us simply with their presence, but they applauded us and guided us, too. when we were confused about a certain exercise, they instructed us. soon we guided each other about food choices, healthy travel, family health, indulgences, good reads and resources.

we clapped for each other, we sighed for each other. we started calling each other out—especially when women went AWOL and we wanted to pull them back, give them support and keep them on track.

this is what social groups do for people. they offer you commiseration, understanding, guidance, information and instruction. they build awareness and empathy for others in situations dissimilar to yours. they build skills passed from one member to another. they create bonds that positively affect the change at hand but bleed into other areas.

company-facilitated private groups

because of the powerful benefits online communities offer, smart companies will consider how they can support groups of this nature. i’d propose a few guidelines:

  • create groups that employees consider safe zones and appeal to a large audience. your groups will see more traffic if they focus on conditions that feel less personal and that more employees experience. lifestyle conditions are a good place to start. so are groups devoted to adult caregivers and single mothers—groups grappling with a unique and stressful set of responsibilities and present in most companies.
  • be explicit about the employer’s role in the group. employers want to be facilitators, not moderators of these groups, so their interest in the group won’t be questioned. after creating the group and communicating its availability, employers would be wise to step back and let the group set its own norms.
  • as with all social media, outline the terms of use. the unwitting sharing of personal health information is always a concern. include advisory language on your site that emphasizes what employees should consider before sharing their personal health information. you may also want to discuss with your legal team whether employees must agree to certain terms of use before gaining access to the group.
  • make resources highly visible. patient communities draw people with a voice and those seeking to learn from them. these passive consumers of information are ready to take action, or are at least contemplating it. bake hyperlinks and resource-rich information into your groups so such readiness is enabled and these “lurkers” empowered.
if you’re in doubt about the power of online communities, join one. you’ll soon observe the myriad benefits. some of them may even be yours.
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