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“Can workplace wellness really change employees’ attitudes towards their jobs? Experts say it can!”

Workplace wellness solutions through peer educator training

The 2003/2004 South African Health Review report stated that Chronic Diseases of Lifestyle (CDL’s) such as cancer, depression and HIV/Aids are responsible for a whopping 76% of all deaths in this country.

Medical doctor and stress management consultant, Dr Arien van der Merwe, says this figure can be managed and reduced through wellness interventions in the workplace.

You have probably implemented health and wellness interventions and messages in your office, but no matter how much money you spend on newsletters, posters and workshops – nothing changes.

The reason why most workplace wellness interventions don’t work is because they tend to stay in the awareness phase. By overloading employees with information on illnesses and health, their attitudes and behavior will not change.

What makes Dr Arien van der Merwe’s workplace wellness program different is the behavioral change model she used to accommodate employees at their different levels of readiness and awareness. According to the employees needs, she has found a sure way of creating a sustainable peer education program that will maintain lasting behaviour and successful workplace wellness solutions.

Peer educator training is the most effective way to change the stigma about HIV/Aids in the workplace,”
– Dr Arien van der Merwe, director of the Centre for Health & Wellbeing in Pretoria.

The behavioural change model

When considering long term healthy behavior change, it is important to use the behavior change model to adapt workplace wellness interventions accordingly. Interventions have to be planned to accommodate employees at all levels of readiness:

  • the pre-contemplation (not yet ready) stage where an individual is not interested in health and wellness at all
  • the contemplation (thinking about it) stage where they’re starting to consider implementing some wellness principles into their lifestyle
  • the preparation (getting ready) stage where they’re getting ready to change behaviour
  • the action (doing it) stage where they’re actually living the changed behavior
  • the maintenance (staying with it) stage where they’re felling so much better, or have been in action for long enough, to make the new behavior their new lifestyle. This is of course where, ideally, one would like all employees to be!

Workplace wellness – stages of change

The vertical lines show the different categories of employees’ willingness to change their attitudes and behavior.

The horizontal lines are showing us where different approaches (such as awareness, behavior change and a supportive workplace wellness environment) should be implemented.

Why you need peer education within a workplace wellness setting to change the attitudes and beliefs of employees

Peer education modifies norms and stimulates collective action because people are able to learn from someone who they see as an ‘equal’. By learning from someone who belongs to the same societal group (based on age, grade or status), knowledge and beliefs are changed at an individual or group level.

According to, peer mentoring is a good way of practising social skills for the mentor and help on adapting and settling in for the mentee.

The Medical Research Council (MRC) report released in May 2006, stated that by the year 2010, the CDL’s will kill 666 South Africans per day! Add to that an estimated 900 people dying from Aids related disease, in South Africa in 2005, and the picture looks even gloomier. These disturbing statistics clearly show the importance of addressing all the CDL’s or chronic health challenges together. The open communication channel that a peer educator training program creates is an important and very effective way to do this.

Peer education is based on behavioral theory which asserts that people make changes not because of scientific evidence or testimony, but because of the subjective judgment of close, trusted peers who have adopted changes and who act as persuasive role models for change.

Peer educators are effective and credible communicators who have inside knowledge of the intended audience and use appropriate language and terminology, as well as non-verbal gestures to allow their peers to feel comfortable when talking about issues of health, wellness, sexuality and HIV/Aids.

But is peer education cost-effective?

Compared to other techniques you are using to implement workplace wellness – yes. Peer education is a cheaper intervention strategy because using volunteers makes it easier to expand the number of employees ultimately reached.

This interactive way of facilitating health and wellness educational programs is an enjoyable, practical and even fun way to spread a prolonged change of behavior in the workforce. The fact that peer educators receive ongoing support and new program content means that they will always have knowledge and information at their finger tips. As the program progresses, peer educators gain more self-confidence to really help and support their fellow workers. Training programs can also be adapted to peer educators’ changing needs as the process evolves and develops as a dynamic, interactive intervention.

The ripple effect of peer education

Peer educators are a special group among the workforce. They volunteer out of a heartfelt belief that they want to help their fellow human beings. They have an interest in health, in obtaining more knowledge and information and to use that to improve the situation for others. This will extend further than the workplace, of course; into the family and community. Peer educator trainers are there to impart knowledge and practical information, encourage, support, and promote healthy living, to create a ripple effect throughout the workforce, families and communities.

Feedback from peer educators after recent sessions:

Peer educators were asked about some of their experience and feedback, also their personal growth and learning, over the past 2 months in between training sessions:.

  1. Site rep: The safety manager said that we are always concerned with protecting ourselves from physical harm, but never realise the personal harm we do by wrong lifestyles and that wellness is just as important. He encouraged me. That felt good, as well as the fact that he saw the worth in what I, as peer educator was doing.
  2. To summarise the peer educators’ comments on what they learnt:
    • Most people don’t know how or what they should eat. The training taught us and now I can teach them.
    • We also learnt the importance of emotional & mental “food” and wellbeing and how important the way we think, is for our wellness
    • I know more about how my body works. How it all fits in together, and the importance of nutrition, exercise, meditation, and so on
    • We learnt to check labels for nutritional value of food
    • I’m more aware of healthy food choices and show it to others
    • I’ve started to adapt my grocery list to make healthier food choices
    • When our group eat together at work, I eat healthier and also then show others: cold drinks, pap with greasy gravy, and chips should be replaced by water, fruit, vegetables, peanuts and yogurt. And, it’s not more expensive! Even the woman who sells the food has been bringing healthier food to sell!
    • We learnt about the importance of water and to drink clean water regularly
    • We know now how important sleep is for our bodies to recover and rest. Also to sleep in darkness and quiet, even if we work night shift
    • We think wellness should be a part of SHE as well
  3. Most of the peer educators said the following:
    • I’m now able to talk to others, approach people correctly, stay aware and not become involved in their story: if they’re negative, I can stay positive and help them to be more positive
    • I was very shy to talk in front of others. This training has helped me overcome that. It feels good!
  4. Site rep: I knew I had it in me, but this training has helped me develop to take a positive leadership role, gain knowledge, learn more about health & wellness, and to help others do the same. I want to spread this knowledge to my community.
  5. All the peer educators had a chance to do a short presentation, and even Martha, who only joined the day before the actual 2nd training session, had her say as the last presenter of 15 peer educators! Here is a transcript of her presentation:

‘Hi my name is Martha. Actually, I just want to say thank you to myself for joining as a peer educator, because you know what? According to my own point of view, I thought the word ‘peer educator’ was more about communication between your peers about AIDS, and I often became bored with these topics. Thank you all very much for the knowledge I’ve gained today, and about health. The only thing that I knew about health was to eat healthy food, HIV diseases and to exercise -that is the main thing I knew about health, but today I learnt a lot! How to make decisions and life choices is also health. I was so amazed. Happiness is also health. Wellness and lifestyles are also health. To lead by example, more especially we peer educators: you must always practice what you preach. You can’t tell somebody don’t smoke when immediately after the break you smoke, then they would say these people are just lying to us! To understand other people’s culture and religion, I was also not aware it was part of people’s health. To sleep enough, I thought maybe you should just sleep four hours as long as you have rest, I was unaware that this was part of health. I thank myself and all my fellow partners, to see myself being here today and become a peer educator, it means I gained a lot and can teach more and more. I study for my family and fellow workers, also my community. Thank you!’

Some comments from the recent peer educator training programs Dr Arien van der Merwe facilitated, when asked why they chose to become peer educators:

  • I can influence others in positive ways
  • I can help my fellow human beings
  • I want to learn more about health and wellness
  • As part of a likeminded group, we can work on a common purpose and support and encourage each other
  • I have learnt how to listen, care and communicate better and gained more confidence
  • I really appreciate how complicated the human body and mind are and because I understand better how all the body’s organs and systems function, I can explain it to others. You must know a bit about anatomy and physiology for the whole health and wellness thing to make sense!
  • Being a peer educator makes me feel good about myself and my efforts to improve the lives of those around me.
  • It’s good that we’re also addressing the other diseases. Many employees will feel more comfortable with this approach. I find it a much more meaningful way to spread the wellness message.


Health risks are business risks. Employee wellness programs increase productivity and profit. Existing statistics can be used to show that peer education works: use existing healthcare claims, employee assessments and feedback, employee turnover, absenteeism, disability claims and productivity measures (quality/quantity). Do ‘before and after’ data. Take an employee survey for input. Providing appropriate program content through sufficient and appropriate training to encourage behaviour modification and sustained motivation through peer educator training, makes sound business sense.

Use skills and techniques to help people modify behavior – education, as an adjunct to behavior modification; motivation; enjoyment and maintenance. Workplace wellness is a journey with proven return on investment through peer educator training.

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