Researchers from the universities of Cologne and Utrecht have found that co-workers can influence each other to improve healthy eating habits.
The researchers found that people are more likely to engage in healthy eating and physical activity when their work colleagues encourage a healthy lifestyle. The research team found that employees’ healthy eating behaviour correlated positively with their colleagues’ fruit and vegetable consumption. However, if one colleague engaged in frequent exercise, this does not prompt others to emulate them.
Explicit encouragement from colleagues did have a positive effect on physical exercise, however, employees did not tend to model their behaviour on co-workers who were more physically active.
The study was led by Professor Dr Lea Ellwardt at the University of Cologne’s Institute of Sociology and Social Psychology and Anne van der Put from the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, Utrecht University.
The findings have been published in BMC Public Health.
Explicit encouragement was needed for physical exercise
The researchers gathered data from the European Sustainable Workforce Survey, which included data on 4,345 employees in 402 teams across 113 organisations.
“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,’ said Ellwardt.
Ellwardt and his team were surprised to find a negative correlation between employees’ physical activity where no explicit encouragement was 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,” concluded Dr Ellwardt.
The researchers believe this may be because people often eat together with colleagues in a social environment, whereas physical activity takes place in private, making it less prone to social influence.
Healthy eating and exercise should be encouraged at work
The researchers considered both colleagues’ encouragement and their actual behaviours. The team wanted to address the encouragement of specific behaviours rather than generic social support. The team also examined behaviours that also take place outside the workplace.
“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 proximity,” explained Dr Ellwardt.
The researchers concluded that colleagues encouraging behaviours regarding healthy eating and exercise can contribute to creating a better culture of health at the workplace and support all employees in making healthy choices.
“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.
According to the researchers, not only does the encouragement of healthy eating and exercise contribute to a healthier culture in the workplace, but can also indirectly support the entire work population, including those not using dedicated programmes at the workplace.