Employees are more likely to follow a healthy diet and engage in exercise when their colleagues at work encourage this attitude, according to a study published in the journal BMC Public Health. In contrast, employees didn’t copy their colleagues’ behaviour simply because they were more physically active if there was no form of encouragement.
From these results, the authors from the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, Utrecht University, concluded that encouragement amongst colleagues at work can create a culture of healthy behaviours at work and support employees make healthy lifestyle choices.
The choice to follow healthy eating habits and engage in regular exercise is heavily influenced by family members, friends, and neighbours. However, researchers don’t know how much co-workers can influence these decisions. Most people spend considerable amounts of time at work with the same co-workers, so this is likely to have a significant impact on healthy or unhealthy decisions.
This study looked at what extent colleagues can influence eating and exercise behaviour either by encouragement or acting as role models. The team used data collected by the European Sustainable Workforce Survey on more than 4000 employees in 400 work teams.
“The study is one of the first to address the role of co-workers’ behaviours using a network approach incorporating direct colleagues. This allowed for a more finely grained analysis than the aggregation of individual-level measures or relating employees who may not work in close proximity,” said Professor Dr. Lea Ellwardt at the University of Cologne’s Institute of Sociology and Social Psychology (ISS). “Our study showed that employees are more likely to eat fruit and vegetables as well as engage in physical activity when their colleagues encourage a healthy lifestyle.”
However, the authors found that employees don’t copy the behaviour of others who make healthier choices like exercising if there’s no encouragement involved. “One explanation for our negative result may be that physical activity typically takes place outside working hours, where it is hardly visible to colleagues,” Ellwardt concluded. In contrast, people eat together every day with colleagues, and encouragement occurs naturally.
The team suggests that this work may prove important when designing health interventions for a wide audience. “Our study implies that when designing health interventions, it is important to incorporate the work environment alongside other social actors such as partners, family members, and friends. Colleagues are relevant sources of social support when it comes to healthy behaviours and can act as role models,” Ellwardt concluded.
van der Put, A., Ellwardt, L. Employees’ healthy eating and physical activity: the role of colleague encouragement and behaviour. BMC Public Health 22, 2004 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-022-14394-0