Our social connections influence our daily behaviors more than we might like to admit, or even consciously notice. As social beings we are in a constant feedback loop with the people around us. What does that mean, exactly? Ever show up to a party wearing a similar outfit as your best friend without having talked about it beforehand? Or find yourself listening to Adele every chance you get because your coworker went to her concert last week and can’t stop talking about how great it was? Our social connections help shape who we are and what we do in more ways than might be obvious to the naked eye.
Nicholas Christakis MD, PhD, MPH studies social dynamics at Yale University and has come up with some tried and true advice for using the power of social connections and dynamics to accomplish goals within a group of people. Today we’ll use some of his work as the basis of our strategy to build a successful wellness program. We’ll cover why the structure of the company itself matters, the crucial role of social contagion, how to make it last, and the differences between online and in-person connections. When you’re finished reading, you’ll be equipped with some good ideas to take into your next wellness strategy meeting.
1. One Size Does NOT Fit All
The internal structure of a company – the social structure, the hierarchy, the methods of communication, and the imbedded culture – is a key component in developing ideas for building a successful wellness program. That may seem obvious, but there are so many programs on the market today that claim to be a solution that can work for everyone. In fact, some programs need to be tweaked for different populations within the same company! A 50-person company, where everyone feels somewhat connected with each other, probably wouldn’t use the same approach as a 5000-person company that’s dispersed across a larger geographic area.
But a company’s culture is based on a lot more than just the number of employees. How the employees are structured, how they’re conditioned to connect with each other, and how they regard leadership are all components of culture. And culture can make or break a new program of any kind (not just wellness).
Take Christakis’ example of graphite and diamonds; both are made of carbon, yet they’re two very different substances. What ultimately differentiates them is the quality of the connection between each carbon atom within them. Think of each employee as a carbon atom. How do they connect with each other? Do employees feel comfortable approaching their superiors? How does the company communicate org-wide news and updates? How much inter-departmental contact is there? Do they work physically close together? Do they work on projects together? Do they all eat lunch together? What is the quality of social connections employees have at work?
These are the questions (along with many, many, more) that you should be asking (and answering) in order to execute a wellness program that will reach the greatest number of employees. Once you’ve answered these questions, you’ll use that information to develop a wellness program that utilizes and builds from the social connections already in place.
In some cases, the answers to these questions will unveil a need for structural change. This will make your job harder, but not impossible. Take it one step at a time, using the most positive aspects of your culture to get your program off the ground, and then build on the goodwill of the initial successes to begin shifting the elements that could use some tweaking.
2. Social Contagion is a Powerful Tool
Whether we recognize it or not, peers affect each other’s attitudes and actions in the workplace. A key finding in Christakis’ research is the level of influence social networks have on seemingly unrelated elements of our lives. Weight gain, weight loss, smoking and drinking habits, happiness levels, sleep hygiene, and exercise habits are all influenced by those in our social networks, for up to three degrees of separation. In other words, if a friend of a friend starts exercising regularly, there’s evidence that shows that you are now more likely to start doing the same. Crazy right? This can be explained by the theory of social contagion — better known as the good ol’ fashioned domino effect. Social contagion is defined in the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology as the spread of affect or behavior from one crowd participant to another; one person serves as the stimulus for the imitative actions of another. Think about the difference between watching a funny movie alone at home vs watching it with a full theater of laughing movie-goers, and you’ll get an idea of how this theory plays out.
The Wellness Champion
Social contagion is the perfect segue into a key component of nearly every successful wellness program: the Wellness Champion. If a popular or highly visible employee engages in a wellness behavior, her positive actions are extremely likely to persuade others to engage in the same behavior. Place a few of these wonderful people strategically throughout the organization, and pretty soon the entire company will be engaged in the healthy behavior! Getting buy-in from just a few key employees can swiftly integrate wellness programs into the culture of a company.
Take a look around your own company and start identifying some potential Wellness Champions. The best place to start is with visible employees. In many companies, that means leadership, but not always. Is there someone people gravitate toward at lunchtime? Someone who’s always telling a great story to a group of employees at the copier? Maybe there’s someone who likes to bring in snacks to share at their desk that would be willing to place a stack of wellness fliers next to the snacks? Get creative with it, reach out to these people with genuine regard for their social position in the workplace, and ask them if they’d like to get involved in the wellness program.
3. Kindness is Key
Consider putting a system in place where employees are encouraged to compliment or acknowledging each other’s successes. Place a bulletin board in the center of the office where people can post notes with kind remark about other employees. This type of positive reinforcement strengthens social connections. Encourage leaders to go out of their way to recognize the good work of their staff members. Reward the positive behavior, and keep the cycle of good will going. Emphasizing acts of kindness in the office is a surefire way to build a happy, productive, and healthy workforce.
4. Relationships Matter, Both Online and Offline
Online and offline social networks serve different purposes when it comes to influencing behaviors. How many of your friends on Facebook do you keep in touch with daily, or even weekly? How many are local friends that you see in person vs acquaintances or friends of friends spread out across the country? Social media certainly serves many purposes. It keeps people connected across distances, allows for group collaboration, picture-sharing, event planning, and even movement building. It reaches large swaths of people at once, and in some cases can even change the world. But it rarely accomplishes the high quality of connection that live relationships can – that is, without the addition of a secret ingredient.
Creating Real Social Connections through Social Media
People feel connected if they’re working together toward a common goal – when something is at stake in the end. Whether it’s a team challenge with real or virtual prizes or a group fundraiser for a good cause, even those who are otherwise disconnected at work can come together and bond over the shared experience. When something is at stake – when an employee is accountable to a team (whether the team members sit in the same room or in an office across the country), she tends to feel beholden and invested in the common goal, and more likely to succeed.
Wellness programs can utilize social media and virtual connections not only to spread knowledge throughout a company, but also to augment the real, genuine connections coworkers are making each and every day in the office.
What can you do today to leverage the power of social networks in your company?
Trying to understand a company’s social network and how it works can be an extremely daunting task as an employer. You must be willing to ask the right questions and seek honest answers about your culture, current systems, and overall structure in order to tailor an approach to wellness that best fits with your company. Seeking out key Wellness Champions within your company who can create a social contagion of desired behaviors is also an important step in beginning to create a healthier workplace. And remember, when it comes down to it, we as human beings respond to genuine connections. Never underestimate the power of relationships. Smart wellness managers take advantage of positive social influences within their population. Through team challenges, celebrating each other’s successes, recognizing top performers and wellness champs, you can ultimately create a happy, healthy environment where people feel truly connected.