Your wellness program may offer a stellar assortment of resources to promote employee and family well-being. But does it cultivate the one element that could make all the difference between short-lived and sustainable behavior change?
The vital role of social support in adopting a healthy lifestyle can’t be overstated. Changing deep-seated habits like tobacco use, poor nutrition, being sedentary, or not managing stress is an extremely complex task. Along the way, even highly motivated participants experience lapses, frustration, and self-doubt; for most, going it alone is a recipe for failure, making future attempts harder — and less likely.
Intentionally building peer support — like a wellness buddy feature — into your programming gives employees a powerful resource for successful behavior change. Encouraging coworkers to partner up for a wellness challenge or goal also strengthens workplace relationships — enhancing camaraderie, teamwork, productivity, and a culture of health.
The Value of a Buddy Approach
Research consistently points to social support as a key element in lasting behavior change:
- Enforces healthy eating habits. During a 7-week worksite health promotion program, supportiveness from friends, family, and coworkers helped participants exercise more and eat less fat.1
- Boosts produce consumption. A peer-led worksite nutrition campaign was linked with a significant increase in fruits and vegetables; produce consumption was still high 6 months after the 18-month program ended.2
- Reduces daily stress. In a study assessing daily hassles, life events, perceived social support, dependence, self-criticism, and attitudes toward illness, individuals with daily stress perceived less support.3 The study suggests that not being supported can have a harmful effect on health by elevating stress and feelings of being unsuccessful.
- Improves disease self-management. A diabetes control study found a 6-month peer mentoring program significantly more effective in reducing HbA1c (a hemoglobin measured to identify glucose) in certain patients with poor control compared to usual care or financial rewards.4
- Promotes a healthy lifestyle. A study of young adults found that when people have friends who eat right and exercise regularly, their odds of engaging in these behaviors are much higher; and the stronger the relationship, the greater the influence.5
- Enhances enthusiasm. Satisfaction with peer support raises performance motivation. Identification with a unit also affects the relationship between peers.6 Individuals who know that others support them are more inspired to be successful themselves, especially when they’re part of a bigger picture.
Community support groups are founded on the sense of relief, encouragement, and empowerment that comes from shared experiences and a “we’re in it together” mindset. The wellness buddy approach offers these benefits on a more interpersonal and reciprocal level; better yet, being on either the giving or the receiving side offers plenty of payoffs. For recipients, having a colleague or family member highly supportive of behavior-change efforts can make all the difference in the world in terms of motivation, confidence, and goal achievement. Those giving support also report improvements in self-efficacy, self-esteem, and quality of life.7
Wellness Buddy Program Design
Look for ways to build peer support into your wellness challenges. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Have workers pair up on their own and assign buddies to those who need one. Virtual buddies can work, but someone they’ll see every day leads to the best results.
- Encourage workers to buddy up for an onsite walking program; publicly recognize pairs who rack up the most weekly walking time, are most consistent, or most enthusiastic.
- Suggest wellness buddies challenge each other to eat more produce, pack each other a healthy lunch once or twice a week, bring in a new fruit or vegetable to try, share favorite healthy recipes, and compete against other teams in a healthy potluck contest.
- Make team success dependent on active participation by both partners. Weight loss challenges, for example, could require both buddies to complete a few activities each day (like eating 3+ vegetable servings and exercising for 30 minutes) to earn the maximum points.
The success of your wellness buddy approach depends largely on how well you communicate about it. Understanding what’s involved in giving and receiving 1:1 support for behavior change is unfamiliar to many people, so teaching workers how to perform well in this role is essential:
- Define the wellness buddy role clearly; make it easy for participants to know what to do and what not to do.
- Offer ideas for different types of support: getting together to learn about each other’s wellness goals; anticipating obstacles and brainstorming together to come up with solutions; exercising or eating lunch together a few times a week; paying attention to each other’s progress and offering positive words; setting a good example with an upbeat attitude and inspiring effort.
- Promote good communication. Partners should practice active listening, asking each other for the specific kinds of support that would be most helpful and asking for feedback — what could they do differently to better support each other?
- Have buddies monitor each other’s progress; if results aren’t as expected, they can ask what’s going well — and suggest building on that.
- Encourage buddies to assess progress by asking each other what they’re most proud of and health benefits they’ve noticed. Remind them to set new goals that build on successes and to consider ongoing support after the program wraps.
- Let them know it’s OK to swap buddies or keep the same buddy for the next challenge. It’s all about personal preference, although there are advantages to pairing up with new buddies and widening the network of support.
Receiving support from a wellness buddy is a powerful experience, enabling a level of progress difficult to achieve with a solo effort. Giving support is equally powerful by promoting accountability, reinforcing a personal commitment to healthy living, building friendships, and rewarding buddies with the tremendous satisfaction of making a big difference in someone’s life. Get your participants fired up for healthy living by helping them pair up — and watch what happens to enthusiasm, engagement, and results.
1 Zimmerman RS, Connor C. Health Promotion in Context: The Effects of Significant Others on Health Behavior Change. Health Education & Behavior, 1989;16(1):57-75.
2 Sorensen G, Stoddard A, Macario E. Social Support and Readiness to Make Dietary Changes. Health Education & Behavior, 1998;25:586-598, cited in Linnan L, Fisher E, Hood Sula. The Power and Potential of Peer Support in Workplace Interventions. The Art of Health Promotion, Sept/Oct 2013.
3 Miczo N. Stressors and Social Support Perceptions Predict Illness Attitudes and Care-Seeking Intentions: Re-Examining the Sick Role. Health Communication, 2004;16(3):347-361.
4 Long JA, Jahnle EC, Richardson DM, Loewenstein G, Volpp KG. Peer Mentoring and Financial Incentives to Improve Glucose Control in African American Veterans: A Randomized, Controlled Trial. Annals of Internal Medicine, March 20, 2012, vol. 156, pp. 416-424.
5 Barclay K, Edling C, Rydgren J. Peer Clustering of Exercise and Eating Behaviours Among Young Adults in Sweden: a Cross-Sectional Study of Egocentric Network Data; BMC Public Health 2013, 13:784.
6 Weiner HR. Group-Level and Individual-Level Mediators of the Relationship Between Soldier Satisfaction With Social Support and Performance Motivation. Military Psychology, 1990;2(1): 21-32.
7 Peers for Progress, 2014, Science of Peer Support, http://peersforprogress.org/learn-about-peer-support/science-behind-peer-support.
Well-being consultant, educator, writer ｜National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach ｜Certified Lifestyle Medicine Coach｜ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist ｜25+ years in wellness ｜Jazz enthusiast.