Social Connections in the Workplace: Why They Matter

Today’s Occasional Read:
Julianne Holt-Lunstad
Fostering Social Connection in the Workplace
American Journal of Health Promotion, v. 35, 2018

Every once in a while it’s nice to keep things relatively simple. I have read and written about some very complicated articles since I started this blog. Today, I decided to take a look at a short article about why we need social connections in the workplace.

This topic is timely, of course, as so many people (including nearly all my colleagues in the library) are working from home right now because of the coronavirus. This topic is also timely because I am serving on a committee at my library that is examining workplace culture and establishing a set of cultural norms for our organization. Since I volunteered for this committee, I have been asking myself a lot why workplace cultural norms are so important. This article was a good reminder of some of the answers to that question.

The science around social connections and relationships is pretty clear about their benefits. Social isolation and loneliness, each on their own, have been found to lead to physical and mental health problems, premature cognitive decline, and other things that make life unpleasant for people. However, it is those two factors working in tandem, meaning that a person is both socially isolated (lacks a social support structure) AND lonely (lacks sufficiently meaningful social connections), that really do some serious damage, especially if the person is experiencing this at work and it impacts the time and energy they can spend developing social connections outside of the office.

So what can be done in the workplace to help combat this phenomenon? According to the author, by addressing the following factors, management can help to ensure that their colleagues feel socially connected and cared for:

“Creating increased opportunities for socialization”

The author suggests that workplaces provide options for colleagues to socialize with each other, both physical (open offices, watercoolers, etc.) and occasional (“social hour gatherings”).

“Implementing strategies that foster high-quality interactions in order to build high-quality relationships”

However, regardless of how well-established a workplace’s social connectivity infrastructure is, the author reminds us that not all workplace interactions are positive or even safe for everyone. She cites a study that showed that more than 8% of people surveyed experienced being bullied at work, experiencing everything from “excessive monitoring of work, unreasonable deadlines, (and) unmanageable workload” to personally abusive behaviors, including “persistent criticism (and) overt threats.”

What can be done to help combat this problem? The author suggests providing “leadership training that promotes open communication and connections between leadership and employees to achieve common goals.” In addition, colleagues at any level can be socialized to interact with one another in a way that “focus(es) on increasing trust, collaboration, and positivity, as well as promoting a feeling that (others) are valued and respected in the workplace(.)”

The author also points out that the workplace is not the only forum in which people need to be supported in building high-quality social connections. By “promoting a healthy work-life balance,” an employer sends a message that an important goal is that its employees have a high-quality life, which includes establishing and maintaining well-tended social relationships outside of work. A diverse social network, as the author explains, can benefit people both physically and emotionally by helping to ensure that a wider variety of their social needs are met.

In her conclusion, the author quotes Vivek Murthy, who served in the Obama administration as the 19th Surgeon General of the United States:

“To truly solve loneliness requires the engagement of institutions where people spend the bulk of their time: families, schools, social organizations, and the workplace. Companies in particular have the power to drive change at a societal level not only by strengthening connections among employees, partners, and client but also by serving as an innovation hub that can inspire other organizations to address loneliness.”

I heard Surgeon General Murthy speak a few years ago, and he was absolutely inspiring. He considered loneliness to be a public health crisis, and I don’t disagree with him.

This week, many of us have undertaken a social isolation program in response to a global viral pandemic. We have spent time getting ourselves ready to “work from home.” We have set up our computers and created our Zoom accounts. There are countless articles with advice about how to work effectively from home — everything from “shower and dress as if you were going to work” to “don’t have junk food in your house because you’ll eat it all.” What I have not seen much of, however, is how we can still feel connected to our community of colleagues as we all are forced to be apart, and why that matters.

Reading this article helped me to create a framework for addressing this problem in my own mind. There has been a fundamental shift in our social paradigm, which might be nearly as unsettling as the fact that there is a deadly virus floating around out there that some of us might already have, likely many more of us are going to get, of which the progression of the symptoms are largely mysterious, and for which there is no cure. People feel uncertain and scared. Of course, there is also a disruption of our major network of social connections for us to deal with.

Workplaces are in survival mode right now, especially those whose entire purpose is to provide services to a community (like my workplace, the library). Creating a new social infrastructure for its employees is, naturally, far down on the list of priorities. I, personally, have been fighting the Slack phenomenon tooth and nail for what feels like several months. I just kept thinking that the last thing I needed was another medium through which people could send me messages that required action on my part. Our collective email fatigue is so very real. But an amazing thing has happened. People are creating all kinds of Slack channels for all kinds of things: reading recommendations, jokes, observations. In fact, I am actually learning things about my colleagues from their Slack postings that I never knew about them before.

The other extraordinary thing that is happening is that, through Zoom meetings, we are being invited into our colleagues’ homes. I love seeing their art, their furniture, and other things that they surround themselves with and love. What an extraordinary gift that has been.

So, for now, I will continue to think about workplace culture, and about how this experience can teach us things that we did not know before about how to create social connections. I hope you are doing well as you are working at home and trying to accomplish things.

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