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Innovations in Wellness: Social Networks

This is one of the Innovations in Wellness selected by editors of Human Resource Executive® magazine.

Friday, April 1, 2011
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It takes a village to raise a child, the old saying goes. It seems the same is true for healthy lifestyles.

People are more likely to eat right or exercise if family, friends and co-workers do too, according to research by Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, a professor at Harvard University's medical school. The same is true for bad behaviors: Christakis found that people have a 57-percent chance of becoming obese if a friend becomes obese.

"Health status is powerfully influenced by relationships between people," he says. "People are interconnected, and so is their health."

Although wellness programs have become mainstream, many companies do not leverage social networks through the best means available today -- social media. In fact, just 9 percent of companies use social media to influence employee health and wellbeing, according to research by Towers Watson.

Companies that do leverage social media for wellness use a wide array of technology -- including blogs, Facebook, Twitter and photo-sharing sites -- or they team up with vendors such as Virgin HealthMiles, Shape Up the Nation or Limeade, which create internal social-networking platforms specifically for companies.

Northwest Natural Gas Co. in Portland, Ore., for example, uses a platform by Virgin HealthMiles that lets its workforce of 1,100 create profiles, upload photos and communicate with each other about health and wellness. The functionality works a lot like Facebook.

On sites such as Shape Up the Nation, users can also issue health challenges to one another. They can challenge co-workers to play basketball after work, for example, or to attend a yoga class over the weekend.

Lea Ann Doolittle, senior vice president of HR at Northwest Natural Gas, says the social media tools make it easy to include everyone in the company's 13 different locations.

"It used to be hard for us to get people corralled around the spirit of a wellness program," says Doolittle. "Now, they can all participate in the events through the Internet. It engages people in a way that they couldn't otherwise be engaged."

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Another company leveraging social media is Blue Shield of California. After asking its employees to come up with their own wellness initiatives, many took it upon themselves to use social media like blogging and photo sharing.

"When we started to empower our employees to engage in wellness and design it themselves, they really wanted the social-media tools," says Bryce Williams, director of Wellvolution at Blue Shield of California. "If we have wellness programs that are exclusively focused on individuals and are ignoring the social impact, we're really missing the boat."

Could social-media components become the standard in health and wellness in the future? A foundation for such a landscape is certainly in place -- and Adam Wootton, senior consultant at Towers Watson in New York, says the trend is growing.

"We've seen a real shift," he says, "from companies saying they're looking at it, to saying they're piloting it, to now saying they're actually launching initiatives."

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