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Company e-mail patterns can predict who’s fat or thin --- and help obese workers lose weight

Corporate e-mail traffic can now be analyzed to determine how companies can help influence obese employees to adopt more healthful habits, according to a new study from Activate Networks of Newton and Healthways, a Tennessee company that helps businesses to devise and implement wellness programs.

One of Activate’s cofounders is Nicholas Christakis, a professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School who has done research on social influence in the workplace. Founded in 2010, Activate “maps” a corporate client’s customers and analyzes “influence patterns.” Such information has the potential to identify ways in which a client can optimize sales, for example.

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Activate and Healthways said in a press release that the study recently published on health habits in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE used data from e-mail traffic that already exists in most organizations. The study did not look at the content of the e-mails, but instead focused on volume, time-stamps, the recipients of e-mails, and the likelihood of whether the e-mails elicited a response, said Luke Matthews, director of analytics at Activate Networks.

Researchers were then able to predict which employees were most likely to be obese or thin by examining the relative body weight of their close social connections in the e-mail data. The analysis was also able to determine which employees are most influential with their coworkers” A potential next step could be for a company to use such information to devise more effective wellness programs, in part by enlisting influential employees to support obese coworkers in their efforts to lose weight.

The idea is to leverage group culture to help motivate positive change, Matthews suggested.

In a statement, Christakis said: “Social influence in the workplace profoundly affects many aspects of our lives, including our health. We have found that social influence is one of the powerful factors, if not the most powerful measurable factor, affecting such health behaviors as weight gain, weight loss, smoking cessation, exercise, mood, and even altruism. This study contributes importantly to our understanding of the power of social networks at work, and it does so by tracing the email communications among people.”

To date, Activate Networks has raised $15 million in venture funding. Investors include Reed Elsevier Ventures, Excel Venture Management, and Premier healthcare alliance.

Activate’s analytics platform is based on social science research by Christakis, Professor James Fowler of the University of California at San Diego, and Professor Rob Cross of the University of Virginia.

Chris Reidy can be reached at reidy@globe.com.
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