Eat healthier and move more? Your peers’ influence is greater than you think

Who is the colleague who took the most steps this month? Which group of colleagues is moving more in the workplace have you already been involved in Vegetable Lunch Challenge? It certainly wasn’t always like that, but today more and more companies are betting on your physical health. Even signing up for a fitness or office building gym is sometimes part of the package these days.

All those fruit baskets and sports options aren’t just about your health. Employers also hope to attract and retain private talent and are increasingly aware of the fact that those who exercise regularly and eat healthily simply perform better.

If this effect is modest at the individual level. “On a scale of zero to five, performance is about 0.1 to 0.2 better. It’s not huge, but of course it matters if you add all the employees,” says Anne van der Put, sociologist at Utrecht University.

I just got my PhD in research on this topic. She and her colleagues investigated what determines whether we also bite at work when suggesting healthy lunches and walking sessions. The survey was conducted among 11,000 workers in 250 companies from 9 European countries.

Belgium was not among them. “We don’t have numbers here right away, but certainly since the pandemic, when many people felt bad, more companies are pulling the wellness card with initiatives that get their employees to eat healthier and exercise more,” says Annelies Baelus of HR Services. Acerta company. “The fact that there are so many articles about wellness these days may also play a role.”

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One of the fascinating findings of Van der Put’s research is that even those who don’t participate also perform better when their employer offers healthy options. “Our hypothesis is that people then feel extra appreciated because the offer is there and they will automatically return something,” says van der Put.

My main finding is that colleagues and work culture are crucial.

“The social factor seems to have more weight than, say, whether you have a lot of autonomy at work or whether you actually live a healthy life,” says van der Put. On the other hand, especially if you notice that some colleagues walk around now and then or make a habit of eating a vegetable option at your lunch. “That’s how it goes,” you think. Call it herd behaviour. And there are always a few colleagues who automatically participate. In walking challenges. They infect others.”

Although not everyone followed. In any case, there are people who rarely or never respond to the health options offered by their employer. “But if the majority go for a walk, there’s a good chance you’ll participate, too,” says van der Put.

“That is why it is important to make these initiatives known throughout the company, for example through a newsletter,” says Baylos.

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And the sociologist discovered that the peer influence persists even when we work at home and in our private lives. When it comes to eating habits, it turns out that the more of your colleagues who eat healthy food at work, the more healthy you will eat at home. Contrary to expectations, this turned out not to be the case for the movement.

“Perhaps the effect on food can be explained by the fact that you often spend more time with your colleagues than with your family or friends and that your eating behavior at work is very pronounced,” says van der Put. Employees consume up to a third of their daily calories at work.

But if work culture isn’t like that, as this study also shows, you probably wouldn’t automatically choose that hour of exercise in the afternoon or that apple over the candy bar with your coffee. In a company where work is the priority and the days are long, fatigue and rushing through the day are in the DNA, even the nicest fitness room, the biggest fruit baskets or the coolest afternoon yoga workshop gets little success. Then continuing to eat the canteen sandwich you eat behind the screen is culture.

“If work is a priority, employees feel guilty if they go to work for an hour, for example, because then they put their health above their work. And their colleagues are still working,” says Van der Put.


In her research, she concludes that health promotion in the workplace is “useless if the work environment is not supportive, even though such employers may believe they are helping their employees.” In other words: if meetings last, say, into the afternoon and the workload doesn’t allow for any significant breaks, then step challenges and so on are useless.

Baylos agrees. “We don’t have research right away, but we do see that health promotion is mainly about the desire to belong and therefore social connection. I have a colleague who takes more steps per day because she wants to stay in our top 10,” she says. “But a company that takes such an initiative once a year but otherwise aims for a lot of work with very few people is clearly worth the effort,” she says. “If you haven’t honestly indicated all year long that you care about your employees’ health, it’s kind of frustrating.”

Megan Vasquez

"Creator. Coffee buff. Internet lover. Organizer. Pop culture geek. Tv fan. Proud foodaholic."

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