HR Strange But True!
September 30, 2010
That popular extrovert employee leading the chatter in the lunchroom is more likely to become a victim of the flu earlier than the worker who eats lunch alone at a workstation, according to a new study.

This study of the so-called “popularity paradox” found that people who interact with colleagues will come down with viruses 2 weeks before other employees. Called “the popularity paradox,” researchers James Fowler of UC-San Diego and Nicholas Christakis of Harvard, say that gregariousness can be a predictor of how an illness will course through a company or community through “psychological and behavioral contagion,” as well as the biological factors.

In an interview with Reuters’ Health and Science Editor Maggie Fox, the researchers said that by finding out the people others identify as “friends,” one could track how a disease would be spread in a workplace.

Fowler told Reuters that "Our method goes and picks people at random, and then we ask them who their friends are, and then we study the friends,” Fowler said. "We studied the H1N1 pandemic last fall in a group of [Harvard] students. The ‘friend group’ [most often named as a friend] got the flu about 2 weeks earlier than the other groups.”

The researchers, who are also social media experts, also say that the “popularity paradox” can also be gauged by monitoring the Internet to see what words people are searching, such as “fever” and “flu,” and also who is at “the hub of social networks,” because they are the most popular. Of course, such monitoring in the workplace brings in an entire other area of concern.

So how would this information help employers? Being able to predict the path that a disease would follow would be a great boom to contingency planning by letting managers determine which employees may come down with the disease first and be able to plan accordingly. It could also help in efforts to stem an illness by allowing “an earlier … and more effective response,” Christakis explained.

Also, the article says that Fowler and Christakis have used this “popularity paradox” methodology in determining that obesity, smoking, and other behaviors are directly related to one’s interaction with others. Which means this paradox could be a key factor in wellness program planning as well.



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