Health is contagious. For employees spending most of their waking hours at work, colleagues can influence an individual’s body mass index and smoking habits. A 2007 study found that people who had an immediate family member or close friend who was obese were 57% more likely to become obese themselves. Moreover, people working in small companies were 34% more likely to quit smoking if one of their co-workers also quit, according to a 2008 study. The data suggest  that employees are more likely to engage in wellness, start healthier eating habits, lose weight, or exercise more if peers do as well.

Creating a formal network of wellness champions to communicate wellness messages and inspire healthy behaviors is one way employers can take advantage of the peer-influence phenomenon. In fact, a StayWell study found that companies that had more formalized wellness champion networks had better health risk improvement, especially among their older employees, who responded well to an on-site champion who was available to answer questions.

“One of the strengths of the wellness champion networks is that it helps customize the program to what the smaller locations need as opposed to trying to fit the one-size-fits-all program to every worksite. Even in one company you have some worksites that are corporate, some that may be retail, and some that may be manufacturing and distribution," explains Stefan Gingerich, senior research analyst at StayWell Health Management.

Building a wellness champion network

Experts recommend having wellness champions share healthy messages during regular face-to-face gatherings or monthly webinars that bring together participants from dispersed locations.

"Getting people to network together not only encourages and bolsters participation in a network, it also helps to show the value or investment that the organization has made in the group," says Sarah Monley, program manager at StayWell. 

Messaging will have more influence coming from direct peers and local HR representatives rather than top down from a strategic group at the executive level, adds Monley.

When an employer develops a network of wellness champions, they should consider these three areas:

Communication. Champions’ main directive is to communicate about health benefits, wellness initiatives and challenges. Communication should also be bidirectional between the champs and wellness program staff so that champions can raise questions and concerns to program leadership from their specific group. They can also dictate micro-strategies at their locations, such as starting stretch breaks at a manufacturing site.

Monley recommends that employers empower champions with an annual calendar that outlines the various communication demands for HR and professional development so that the champions don’t overlap communicating their own initiatives with larger events or open enrollment.

Incentives. Champions work to build intrinsic motivation among employees to engage them in wellness programs. They also can add a level of trust for an initiative and incentive. Some workers may misinterpret how wellness data is used and have privacy concerns; their champion peers can ease their fears. In addition, champions can break down complicated incentive structures by speaking the language of their colleagues, acting as a “liaison to incentives,” says Monley. Some champs even hold office hours at computer kiosks to help employees navigate through a wellness site or health risk assessment so they can answer any questions and ensure that people receive credit for an incentive. 

Evaluation. Since most champions are passionate about health improvement to begin with and are often volunteers, motivating these individuals isn’t the main issue. However, employers should be clear about the level of commitment and expectations up front. It helps significantly to have managers support them and give them time and resources to make their task easier.

Managers should give ad hoc recognition to champions whenever possible and many employers host annual conferences “where everyone gets together at the same location and [are given] opportunities for collaboration, partnership, and the chance to share their experience,” says Erin Seaverson, director of research department at StayWell.

Employers can also reward champions at the end of year if they meet a certain bracket for employee participation in HRAs or challenges by granting a healthy prize, such as a treadmill workstation for their worksite, or a dollar value that the champion can choose how to apply at their local site.

While most employers replace champions on an as-needed basis because the champion no longer is able or willing to maintain their involvement, some employers ask champions for a one to two year commitment. Monley suggests that employers consider mixing up champions every few years to avoid burnout and encourage creativity.

Choosing the best champs for the job

When selecting champions, employers should look for the potential reach of influence from employees in varying departments, shifts or workgroups within a location. For example, an individual who makes regular in-person presentations to departmental heads who assist with communications may be a good choice. Or in a different scenario, it makes sense to have a champion representing office employees and a second champion representing operations employees in the same building, says Monley.

For some locations where workers don’t speak English or speak it as a second language, Monley recommends employers “identify people who can bridge that language barrier." 

StayWell found the average ratio of employees to wellness champions was 200:1, with some locations having higher or lower ratios.

All champions should have supervisor approval in order to ensure their efforts will be supported and that they are already high performers in their daily job requirements. Some employers ask middle-managers for nominations since they have a good sense of natural leaders in their group. Others build the champion’s requirements into the job descriptions of HR or safety managers.

“Champions should be good at relationship building,” says Seaverson. “A lot of employers use wellness champions as a conduit for communication and getting program messages out to the masses. [Find] wellness champions that are respected, approachable, embrace and represent the program and are active participants because modeling is very important in a wellness program."

Employers should also keep in mind the power of the success story.

“It is true that health fanatics, while passionate, are not always the best equipped to galvanize behavior change among their peer groups without causing a level of intimidation. The ideal champion is someone who may have had a health concern or unhealthy behavior to change and did, in fact, make the change with the support of the organization's wellness offerings. This person can use their experience to relate to their peers, and can be viewed as an inspiration of what's possible with intrinsic motivation,” says Monley.

To read more about wellness champions and how the University of Michigan implemented its successful network of wellness champions, go to "Wellness champs in action at University of Michigan."

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