The scientists conclude that overall, encouragement of co-workers and their own healthy behavior has the potential to contribute to creating a culture of health in the workplace and support all employees in making healthy choices.
The study was conducted by Professor Dr Lee Elwardt from the Institute of Sociology and Social Psychology (ISS) of the University of Cologne and Anne van der Putt from the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Utrecht University. His article is published in ‘Employee healthy eating and physical activity: the role of supportive incentives and attitudes’ BMC Public Health,
Exercise and healthy eating are not just personal choices, they are influenced by family members, friends and neighbors. However, little is known about the role of peers, who are another important interpersonal influence. People spend many hours at work, mostly surrounded by the same colleagues who can significantly shape employees’ (a)healthy choices.
The scientists studied the extent to which peers can influence each other’s eating and exercise behavior, focusing on two pathways: Peers can encourage a healthy lifestyle or act as role models whose behavior can be modified. Can be viewed and copied.
The team used the European Sustainable Workforce Survey with data from 4345 employees in 402 teams across 113 organisations. ‘Our study showed that employees are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables, as well as engage in physical activity, when their co-workers encourage healthy lifestyles,’ Elwardt said. However, contrary to their expectations, van der Putt and Elwardt found a negative correlation between the physical activity of employees and co-workers where no explicit incentive was involved.
‘One explanation for our negative result could be that physical activity typically occurs outside of work hours, where it is barely visible to co-workers,’ Elward concluded. People often eat at work every day with co-workers, while physical activity takes place in private, reducing the social impact.
The study also considered co-workers’ encouragement and their actual behavior, addressing specific incentives for behavior rather than general social support, and examining behaviors that occur outside the workplace. Elwardt explained: ‘The study is one of the first to address the role of peer attitudes using a network approach involving direct peers. This allowed a more granular analysis than individual-level measures or aggregations of related employees who may not work in close proximity.’
Peers: as motivators to reach your health and fitness goals
Overall, the encouragement of co-workers and their own healthy behavior has the potential to contribute to creating a culture of health in the workplace and to support all employees in making healthy choices.
The authors believe that this makes it promising for managers and public health policy makers to consider. ‘Our study implies that when designing health interventions, it is important to include the work environment, along with other social factors such as partners, family members and friends. Peers are relevant sources of social support when it comes to healthy behavior and can act as role models,’ Elward concluded.
Importantly, not only do peer incentives and behaviors contribute to creating a culture of health in the workplace, but they also indirectly support the entire working population, including those not using dedicated programs in the workplace.
The authors believe that future research would benefit from using longitudinal data to examine impact processes over time. Since individuals assimilate cues from their environment to shape their intrinsic motivation, this research may show how long it takes for a new employee to adapt to current workplace health norms.