What’s Love Got to Do with It? Why Smart Employers Care About Social Health in the Workplace
Updated: Apr 18, 2020
Happy Valentine’s Week! Today’s recommendation is to buy roses and chocolates for your entire team.
Kidding! (But go ahead if you really want to. I’ll be the first to say that chocolate has a seriously positive effect on my mental health.)
You may be thinking that warm, fuzzy feelings don’t really have a place at work. “Who cares if everyone likes one another,” you might think, “as long as people can do their jobs?” After all, employees are in their roles to work, not to make friends. So why should employers take steps to promote social well-being in the workplace? The short answer is: because they’ll work better, harder, faster, longer. That is to say, they’re more engaged and genuinely invested in the outcome of their work tasks, more productive and efficient, and more loyal to the company. Just as is the case with mentally healthy workplaces, research tells us that when people feel socially connected to their co-workers, the work they’re doing and the work environment, the companies they work for see a positive impact on the bottom line.
Social health stems from an evolutionary need.
Once upon a time, bonding with other humans secured your place in a group or pack, which helped to protect your physical safety. Social bonding is essential for propagation of the species which is why the brain releases oxytocin (sometimes referred to as the “love hormone”) after childbirth. Even today, many people describe strong social bonds, such as what you might experience with a romantic partner, family member or close friend, as bringing about feelings of safety and security (although in a modern-day context people are typically referring to feelings of emotional security, not literal physical safety). If you’ve ever referred to your co-workers as your “work family” you’ve likely experienced positive social health at work. The need for social connection drives much of our behaviour, including in the workplace. But social health goes beyond just human-to-human contact. In a truly socially healthy workplace employees feel genuinely connected to their work and have a strong sense of purpose and belonging both to their work community (the other humans with whom they work) and the company itself, including its values and mission. When our social health is properly fed, our work means more to us than a series of menial tasks and we feel proud and satisfied with our contribution to the overall work of the organization.
In psychologically unhealthy workplaces, the drive for social connection will still be present – as we’ve established, it’s a biological need – but it may manifest in damaging ways. Consider a couple of examples:
Rebecca and Mel work in an environment that generally promotes positive mental health. In having spent some time together working on team projects, Rebecca and Mel have found they have some common interests and their personalities mesh well together. Even when their workload gets a little heavy and they’re feeling stressed about the time constraints they’re working under, Rebecca and Mel are able to stay in good spirits, work productively and share a laugh every once in a while. They’re both very invested in doing the best job they can and they enjoy a relationship where they can bounce ideas off of one another and both ask for and receive constructive feedback without fear of judgment. Rebecca and Mel feel invigorated by the sense of professional pride they experience when they’re commended by one another and their peers, and by the confidence they feel in their abilities to contribute in a meaningful way to the work of their team and their organization. Their positive social health helps them to put out their best work. Sounds great, right?
Unfortunately, Jordan and Avery’s workplace is psychologically unhealthy on many fronts. It’s a highly competitive environment commonly described by employees as “cut-throat”. The stress level in their workplace is palpable. Members of the leadership team regularly make thinly veiled threats to employees to remind them that sub-par work and inefficiency are grounds for dismissal, and the culture of fear perpetuates an “every man for himself” mentality. Although both Jordan and Avery are kind, likeable individuals, their workplace has brought out the worst in them. They feel isolated in their roles and crave social connection but the barriers to sound psychological health prompts unhelpful social behaviours. When working on assignments together Jordan can’t help but hope that Avery will fail in on some level, as it would make Jordan’s own work look better. Avery perceives Jordan to be disingenuous and complains about this to other co-workers, which Jordan has heard through the grapevine. Their communication to one another, their peers and management is routinely passive-aggressive and subject to interpretation – their words say one thing, while their tone and body language usually says something else entirely. Jordan and Avery complain equally about the other not pulling their own weight, no matter how hard each of them works. Both employees fulfill their social health needs through unhealthy alliances and bond with co-workers by criticizing one another. Their lack of social health has been a catalyst for mental distress, and their organization is experiencing higher rates of absenteeism and turnover than ever.
Which of these two workplaces is more productive?
You guessed it. Jordan and Avery’s workplace has some work to do, while Rebecca and Mel are statistically likely to be far more engaged, productive and loyal to their employer.
Now let’s pan out for a broader perspective.
My blog posts are usually specific to mental health and its implications in the workplace. Physical health tends to be the component that comes to mind for most people when we talk about health and safety at work and of course, along with mental health, it’s an essential piece of the pie. The third and final slice of the “health pie” (according to the World Health Organization’s definition of the word “health”) is social well-being. Each of these components accounts for an equal third of the pie, and it’s essential to recognize that one impacts the other impacts the other and so on… indefinitely. For example, if I’m feeling socially disconnected – let’s say I’m an argument with my spouse – my mental health will likely be effected (I might experience a spike in my stress level, or become grouchy) as well as my physical health (my appetite might change and I have a hard time sleeping that night). Forward-thinking workplaces are recognizing and addressing all three components of overall health and modifying health and safety policies and practices to account for physical, mental and even social well-being.
What’s your organization doing to support social connection? Let us know in the comments section below!
Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to frequent keynote speaking and corporate training on mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.