5 reasons to take employee wellness social

May 5, 2010

in health communication,social media,wellness

note: this piece and other free resources are available for download on context’s website.

i’m writing an article for the APA’s june newsletter about ways to make your wellness efforts social (sign up so you get it). in preparation for it, let’s talk now about why you want to go social.

as people and as consumers, we’ve numerous social networking sites for many of our health concerns: weight, fitness, chronic conditions, and disease. the number of health sites has grown from 35 to nearly 500, estimate the officials of the health 2.0 conference. one recent survey found that 40% of online consumers use social media for health information. another, by pew research center, noted how online social networks serve those with chronic conditions, providing not only information but also a social outlet and support during very rough times.

this rise in popularity isn’t surprising when you consider the trends in social media overall and the quest to improve health engagement. what is surprising is how few companies are making use of online social networks as part of their health and wellness efforts. with that in mind, here are five reasons to take employee wellness social:

1. it’s where we spend our time. the way to capture people’s attention is to be where they are, and clearly, we’re online and on social networks, in particular. nielsen reported that our time spent on social networks has nearly tripled in the past year, and i’d suspect that’s continued its rapid ascent since this was captured in september 2009. social can also be mobile. with smartphone ownership skyrocketing, reaching employees through that medium is going to be advantageous and a necessity.

2. our social networks influence our behavior. the framingham study is one of the more famous studies of how social networks influence our behavior. from 1971 to 2003, researchers looked at the influence of social networks on tobacco and obesity and determined that your network has a powerful influence on what you do and provides necessary support for changing behavior. since then, we’ve continued to dig into how this works. social networks provide companies a new channel for spurring and cementing positive change by making it the norm and widening the ripple of positive change that starts with a few committed individuals.

3. engaged patients take charge. individuals who take an active role in their health—understanding their health risks and habits, researching their options, and making informed decisions—have better outcomes. sites like curetogether, patientslikeme, healthunlocked, and other patient communities have popped up to help people with specific conditions share information and provide recommendations. in some cases, as with curetogether, they’re even pushing research forward through their data sharing. while i’m pro-transparency when it comes to conditions and what we call “disease management” as a way to destigmatize disease, i can understand there being reluctance to participate in these sites at work. by creating social networks for interests and prevalent lifestyle risks and increasing their value with on-tap experts, companies provide the means for employees to take charge. they can point employees toward condition-related networks where they may feel more confident about sharing.

4. social networks amp up trusted peer-to-peer communications. edelman recently came out with an updated trust barometer report that suggested peers are no longer our most trusted resource. when you dig into this surprising fact, it turns out that peers include casual acquaintances on facebook, linkedin, and so forth—not your peers, neighbors, and friends who continue to be a major source for recommendations and advice. granted, in a big organization employees aren’t going to know everyone; they will, however, have shared circumstances and access to the same (or similar) benefits and programs. in this way, company-delivered social networks connect employees to peers with similar concerns who can speak from experience about what works for them.

5. you can eavesdrop your way to better design and communications. online conversations—whether on twitter, forums, or blogs—let HR and corporate communication understand where people are confused, where they have questions, or where there’s a lack of understanding. it’s a nonstop, unbudgeted focus group with unvarnished information about how companies can improve their program design and communications.


Leave a Comment

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Elizabeth May 5, 2010 at 11:40 am

Love this post. Printed it out to take with me to HRevolution his weekend. Will make great thought-producing fodder for conversations. Thanks!


Carol Harnett May 5, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Nicely done, Fran.

Had a conversation the other day with Rebecca Regnier (@LaughItOff). She pointed out that employers seem to want to build their own proprietary social networks but employees, and people in general, are already overwhelmed with FB, Twitter and LinkedIn. Great reminder.



Ray Goldberg May 5, 2010 at 1:08 pm

You’ve made a very convincing case for incorporating social media/networking into our 2011 planning — especially #2 and #3 (influencing behavior via friends and engagement). Your point #5 means that we should consider changing our approach to some extent, from “messaging” (one-way) to “conversing” (two-way). Thanks!


fran May 5, 2010 at 10:18 pm

Elizabeth, I’m sorry to miss #hrevolution. I have a good excuse: my anniversary! Let me know how the conversation goes.

carol, we bounced around the build, buy, or join approach to social networks on a recent @co_health twitter chat. i think there are good arguments for all and it varies by organization and need. ultimately, it’s about keeping it simple.

ray, what timing, huh?! 😉 re: #5 — it’s definitely about facilitating conversations, not managing them. i had a great conversation with ryan travis, sr manager, web and digital comms, at walmart. their approach is terrific – and working. they listen to what employees are talking about and add their information to this employee-generated conversation. this way, employees are already invested and ready to listen, whereas with corp literature, they typically tune you out before your pamphlet even hit the desk!



TomPier May 6, 2010 at 11:52 am

great post as usual!


henry albrecht May 9, 2010 at 6:42 pm

we find with our corporate wellness service (Limeade), social networking is quite a culture-building exercise, and a way to strengthen bonds with people you know and spend 8 hours+ a day with. social networking is a cat out of the bag — at least a company can subtly guide that it is taking a positive (even if a bit irreverent) direction.


fran May 10, 2010 at 7:55 am

henry, i agree on the culture-building and bond-strengthening aspects of social networking. i also think social media can change a culture, altering the way an organization communicates and interacts and building trust that may have not previously existed.



Janet McNichol May 28, 2010 at 10:23 pm

Great post Fran. I’m preparing to moderate a conversation about using social media to engage employees at the Alliance for Workplace Excellence Thinkfest next Tuesday and you’ve given me some new things to think about. And, as always, you conveyed the ideas succinctly and clearly with studies to back them up. Thank you!


Bill Starr September 30, 2010 at 8:42 am

Fran, This article has confirmed we are moving in the right direction to offer companies a white-label version of our goal achievement social network. (http://www.mylifelist.org) We completely agree that many people are now overwhelmed by Twitter and Facebook, and the reason lies in the fact that most people are merely broadcasting and no one is listening. Not really effective two-way communication.

As you point out, companies are looking for ways to increase participation rates and engagement in their existing wellness programs. By combining a goal-achievement tool and a social network, companies will see benefits not only in reduced healthcare costs but gains in productivity, reduced absenteeism and increased retention.

Online social networking is in its infancy, the next generation of social networks will be smarter and more focused on conversations that matter. The next phase is for companies to launch their own social networks that reflect their values and contain the input of their employees and in some cases their customers.

I’d love to know what you think, I will drop you a note this week as your insights are refreshing.

Bill Starr
CEO, My Life List™


fran September 30, 2010 at 8:53 am

bill, your site looks interesting. i know i want to learn how to snowboard. beyond the fact that many twitter and facebook accounts (or other company-sponsored wellness efforts) are broadcasting at and not speaking with, there’s also the fact that companies aren’t designing, implementing or communicating for the end-user. it needs to start there.



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