Study Finds: Social Support is Key to Sustained Behavior Change

Social Support, In-Person or Virtual, is Key to Sustained Behavior Change

Forget the carrot or the stick; it’s the audience cheering you on that’s most important for initiating and sustaining behavior change. Those are among the findings from an analysis by professors from the University of Pennsylvania. There are valuable lessons from this for employers designing employee wellness programs, as well as anyone trying to improve their health.

What doesn’t work?

The analysis headline, “Patient Engagement: What Creates Behavior Change May Not Sustain It,” contains an important warning. Educating people about healthy behavior can be very effective in initiating change. But it doesn’t sustain it.

For example, patients may be willing to try to quit smoking based on the recommendation of their physician and access to a smoking cessation program, but for most smokers that combination alone is unlikely to produce sustained results.

Ranked lowest for both initiating change and sustaining it was financial penalties. Financial rewards do better; but they’re not what’s most effective.

What works?

The study finds that in-person social support and virtual social support are the top two ways for sustaining behavior change.

While technological advances continue to enable innovations in health care, human interaction and social support will remain pivotal for many people to maintain and improve their future health.

That mirrors what we find at Burnalong: It’s very easy to ignore an informational pamphlet or a one-directional video, but if you’ve got co-workers or friends waiting on the screen for you to exercise together — you’ll show up.

What does this mean for employee wellness programs?

Study respondents didn’t have high regard for existing employee wellness programs. Only 1 in 5 consider the programs very or extremely effective. When asked what was the most effective way of sustaining behavior change through wellness programs, the top response was: Peer participation and support.
All this ultimately contains good news for employers: You don’t need to threaten or bribe employees to get the best results. You just need to connect them – whether in person or virtually – with the people who motivate them: Their co-workers, friends, family, or their support network.

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