employees don’t want information about benefits via social media: susannah fox and jane sarasohn-kahn help me dig into that finding

August 9, 2010

in health communication,social media,wellness

last month i shared my befuddlement about the national business group on health’s findings that employees don’t want information about their benefits via social media.

“When asked how interested would they be in receiving health benefit information via social media, about three in four said they had no interest in getting this information via Facebook; slightly more—approximately 80%—had no interest in receiving a tweet (Twitter) with health benefit information. Virtually all respondents said they would prefer receiving this information via regular mailings to their homes or via emails.”

helen darling, NBGH’s president, was quoted in the press release:

“While all the rage outside of the workplace is on social media, most employees aren’t ready to mesh that part of their routine into the workplace, at least when it comes to health benefits. In fact, a vast majority of workers would prefer their employers stick to tried and true communication methods—mailings to home and e-mail.”

i didn’t think that lined up with trends, so i consulted two superb resources on the subject: susannah fox, associate director at pew internet, and jane sarasohn-kahn, health economist, blogger at healthpopuli.com and author of a white paper about mobile tools and the chronically ill.

susannah confirmed that the stats for who’s using social media ring true, based on their 2009 data on what people are doing online. as did NBGH, pew also found limited use of social network sites myspace, facebook and twitter for getting and sharing health information, with about 1 in 10 social network site users getting health information on these sites (source: 2008 study). when you consider how many adults look online for health information, the picture changes slightly. eighty-three percent of internet users are looking for health information (2009), and 37% have read about someone else’s health experience, consulted online rankings and reviews, or in some other way accessed user-generated information (2008). susannah confirmed that in their august 2010 health survey they’ll be looking for any jump in use of social networks for getting health information and that they have unreleased data showing a jump in overall use of social networks.

from jane’s perspective:

“The finding that workers generally don’t want to hear much from their employers on health issues via social media distills the fact that employees tend to want to keep employers from getting too close to them in their personal health management. That’s why there’s HIPAA, and case law surrounding an employee’s right to privacy when it comes to personally identifiable health information.”

she went on to highlight that:

“We’re entering a gray zone where health citizens may choose to post personal information on social networks—whether in facebook or in condition-specific sites like patientslikeme. Employers who want to motivate employees toward greater health engagement will need to work with trusted partner-intermediaries who will preserve the arm’s-length relationship between worker and workplace.”

as we surge ahead into these murky philosophical and ethical waters, social media and mobile use are on the rise. millenials keep pushing the boundaries on what’s private and what’s not. more broadly, many are finding benefit from sharing their health information online. this concept is what’s behind curetogether, a website and community where people contribute their health data to improve their treatment and inform, if not drive, research. and we’re still unpacking how our social networks (online and off) affect our health.

and therein lies the crux of my earlier befuddlement. the NBGH findings are right on for multigenerational companies today. will they still be right on for tomorrow’s? that’s the question companies need to be evaluating now.


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Jim Hoff August 10, 2010 at 12:15 am

Hi Fran. Interesting post. To me all of the observations and thoughts here are on target, but I also think there’s something more fundamental at play. I was interviewed about this same survey and what I said was that I believe employees don’t yet have much context for what it means to engage with their benefits via social media. I can imagine if Americans were asked at the dawn of television, or even radio, if they wanted to get their news via TV, they would have said, “No thanks, I like my daily newspaper.” That was what they knew.

Plus, the survey question asked about receiving benefits information via social media — not creating community, or sharing stories, or addressing wellness, or any of the more appropriate, powerful, or even risky ways of using social media. Who is to say the social channels will ever be right to deliver simple benefits *information*?

Like you, I hope employers and communicators don’t use findings like these to excuse them from thinking creatively about how to use all the channels at their disposal, and how to use the right channels, for the right audiences, in the right ways.


fran August 10, 2010 at 6:16 am

hi jim.

great points. the survey wording, which is not widely accessible, was focused more on the tool than on the ways they can be used. it was also limited to facebook, twitter and text. they didn’t delve into social networks, like the ones mentioned in the post. i’m keen to see the new pew data on this.

i’d also be very interested in seeing NBGH redo the survey with questions like “would you like a quick way to access someone for help” or “would you like to speak with others with similar goals or chronic disease?” i wonder how working from the person’s perspective might change the answers and the insights.



Jim Hoff August 10, 2010 at 10:54 am

Exactly. I don’t doubt the results of the survey based on the questions asked. But if we ask employees what they want, they’ll tell us what they want based on their current frame of reference.


Carol Harnett August 16, 2010 at 1:36 pm

Hi Fran,

Sorry for the delay in responding to your post. I have a few thoughts on the topic…some general and some specific to the Business Group’s survey.

As you know, I had the chance to interview the curators of the National Business Group on Health’s aforementioned survey: Karen Marlo and Brenna Shebel. I’ve also had the opportunity to review the entire survey and accompanying statistics.

The Business Group used an outside group to survey employees of employers with more than 5000 employees (note: not necessarily Business Group members), which is the base of the Business Group’s membership. So, by design, the survey is skewed. Their goal was to answer a question that large employers have been struggling with relative to social media and health messaging. One large employer has been very visible about their specific effective results from using social media for health messaging and the Business Group wanted to understand if this result could be achieved by most large employers.

The survey had limited statistically significant results and any level of significance was only achieved at the 0.05 confidence level, which is the Business Group’s standard for validating significance (and a debatable level among statisticians). They did not use weighted averages. When they asked the follow-up question regarding survey participants’ interest in receiving health information via social media platforms, they used the entire population instead of only using participants who had indicated that they currently use social media. Karen indicated that they never thought to limit the follow-up question that way and stated that would have provided more accurate results.

All the above said, the results are still useful. Karen’s take-away message was, “Employers need to be aware that communication is complicated and they need to focus on multiple vehicles, use them frequently and use them to capture attention… Wellness messages need to be frequent and by different mechanisms.”

Based upon conversations we’ve had, I know you agree with that take-away.

I’ll add two thoughts of my own.

The first is that we have to realize that not everyone — and, perhaps, almost no one — uses social media the way we do. Let’s expand that thought to music. I’m still astonished by a report, which Forrester released in July 2010 about digital music and cloud storage. Few consumers currently use a wide number of devices to listen to music. Only a third of consumers listen to music on MP3 players and only 10% listen on music phones. And only five percent listen via all currently available devices: MP3, phone, computer and home streaming. I thought the whole world was listening and downloading music digitally! But that’s most likely because that’s how I and most of my family and friends listen to and enjoy music. The lesson: we’ve bought into social media in a big way, but most have not…nevermind expanding that to how people receive health messaging.

My second thought is that most people want health information in a “just in time” fashion. They don’t want prevention pushed out at them. They want to use the Internet/Web for health information when they need it. The Harris Poll supports that observation.

So, that’s it from me. Thanks for the chance to comment.


fran August 17, 2010 at 2:58 pm

carol, thanks for these behind-the-scenes insights and the additional observations. you’re right, i am on board with the notion of using multiple vehicles to communicate. social media and electronic communications are both very tempting, particularly given their low-to-no start-up costs. before companies put anything in place, they really need to know their audience — who’s online? where are they online? — and construct a plan based on this data.

i also agree about making health information available at the point of need. the more companies make their resources easy to find, simple to use and credible, the better. i also think companies can do a lot by ensuring the necessary supports are in place. i’ve been wondering how many managers are equipped to deal with stressed out employees, particularly those at the levels of slater or thornton, the beer distributor killer, for example.

with prevention, i wouldn’t wait for “just in time” i think personalized gaps in care alerts, for example, can be very effective to prompt someone about missed preventive tests. more broadly, creating an environment that makes prevention (eating well, moving more, quitting tobacco, stressing less) possible definitely can’t wait for “just in time.”



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