July 18, 2023
Social Connectedness Is an Integral Pillar of Health and Well-being
Since the beginning of time, humans have relied on social connections to navigate not only survival but the complexities of daily life. From an evolutionary perspective, social bonds provided safety, protection and assistance.1 Today, social connections remain vitally important and offer numerous, albeit different, benefits than they did long ago. Social connectedness and belonging can improve happiness and myriad health outcomes, in addition to workplace outcomes like engagement and performance.2,3
Despite growing recognition of the importance of social connectedness – and the fact that there are now more than 8 billion people in the world – one in three adults across the globe report feeling lonely.4 With health and business outcomes at stake, promoting positive relationships among peers and loved ones has become an important public health and workplace issue. This resource examines the relationship between social connectedness and health, well-being, community and business outcomes. It also presents a series of evidence-based recommendations to address loneliness in the workplace and boost social connectedness among employees.
Key Terms Defined: Social Connectedness, Belonging, Loneliness and Isolation
The concept of social connectedness “refers to a person’s positively experienced relationships” and “the subjective experience of feeling close to and a sense of belonginess with others.”8 These connections span many aspects of daily life, from relationships with family, friends, neighbors and colleagues to a broader sense of community belonging and purpose. While relationships are deeply personal and individualistic, generally, quality relationships and connections can be understood as mutually beneficial relationships rooted in positive emotions like kindness and generosity.
Belonging is an additional layer of social connection in the community, home and workplace. Belonging is “a subjective feeling that one is an integral part of their surrounding systems, including family, friends, school, work environments, communities, cultural groups, and physical places.”9 Belonging also encompasses “a feeling of security and support when there is a sense of acceptance, inclusion and identity for a member of a certain group.”10
On the other end of the spectrum, loneliness can be defined as “a distressing feeling that accompanies the perception that one’s social needs are not being met by the quantity or especially the quality of one’s social relationships.”20 Put in simpler terms, “loneliness is the feeling of being alone, regardless of the amount of social contact.”21 While loneliness and social isolation are interconnected, the two are not interchangeable. Social isolation is a lack of social contacts and not having contacts to interact with on a regular basis.
The Shifting State of Social Connectedness
Global Factors Driving Increased Loneliness
While the COVID-19 pandemic put a sharp focus on loneliness and social isolation, a loneliness epidemic was growing well before the pandemic. A meta-analysis of 437 datasets, spanning more than 124,000 participants from 1976 to 2019, found that loneliness, as defined by the UCLA Loneliness Scale, has increased over time.11 Another study saw loneliness in U.S. adults jump from 54% to 61% in just 1 year (2018 to 2019).12 In fact, loneliness is such a pervasive global issue that multiple countries are sounding the alarm. The U.S. Surgeon General released a Surgeon General Advisory on the epidemic of loneliness and isolation, while the U.K. appointed a Minister of Loneliness, with other countries following suit.13,14 15
Many factors have led to the increase in loneliness, including geographic mobility (i.e., people are living farther apart from family and friends), the rise in one-person households, declining trust in major institutions, and the increased use of technology, which often acts as a poor substitute for in-person connections and can interrupt, distract from and diminish time spent together, among other consequences.16,17,18,19
Loneliness Across the Population
Loneliness can be experienced differently among some demographics and geographies. For example, U.S adults in urban and suburban areas were less lonely than those in rural areas.20 And while much of the research on social connectedness has been focused on geriatric populations, data show that loneliness is pervasive across age groups. While only half of baby boomers indicated they are lonely, more than two-thirds of Gen-Zers and millennials state they are lonely.12 Loneliness also peaks across various life stages, including prime working ages: the late-20s, mid-50s and late-80s have all been identified with increased loneliness.21 These peaks indicate a particular need to invest in efforts to reduce loneliness for these cohorts.
How Individuals Experience Belonging in the Workplace
Demographics not only play a role in loneliness – they can also play a key role in one’s sense of belonging in the workplace. For example, Latino and Black workers feel more alienated from co-workers than their White counterparts (39% and 30% compared to 26%, respectively). In addition, Black and Latino adult workers in the U.S. reported more difficulties building relationships with their direct team (19% and 18%, respectively, compared to the 12% national average) and are less likely to bring their authentic selves to work (26% and 24%, respectively, compared to the 17% national average).22
Some people of color (POC) experience loneliness in the workplace as a result of not feeling included. This may be due to being the only or one of few employees of their racial and ethnic group or feeling undervalued, among other reasons.23 This example demonstrates the relationship between social connectedness and diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) in the workplace and underscores the importance of fostering DEIB as a critical component of the organizational well-being strategy.
Assessing the State of Your Workforce’s Connectivity
Employers can utilize channels already in place to assess the state of social connectedness within the workforce. Consider adding questions to existing employee surveys on well-being or engagement, receiving input from focus groups, and leveraging employee resource groups (ERGs) for feedback. This information can help establish a baseline and help determine future efforts and improvement.
Strong Social Connections Are Vital to Health and Well-being
Eighty-two percent of employers include social connectedness as a dimension of well-being – and rightfully so.24 Strong social support networks – both at work and at home – can improve adherence to healthy behaviors and lead to better health outcomes. As the Surgeon General eloquently states, “Our individual relationships are an untapped resource—a source of healing hiding in plain sight.”25 Consider the following:
Strong relationships can have a positive effect on certain health conditions, including obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease
Numerous studies indicate the positive ties between strong relationships and better health outcomes:
- Social support and positive interactions with others have been linked to lower BMI; 26
- Integrating elements of peer support, both formal and informal, has been shown to be more effective for diabetes and weight management treatments than traditional education and medical intervention alone;.26,27 and
- Older adults with strong networks are more likely to complete preventive services within the recommended time frames.28
Social connections can even act as a protective factor. A 10-year longitudinal study found that strong social networks lowered the risk of premature death.29 Conversely, a lack of meaningful relationships has been equated to other health risk factors, such as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, not exercising, alcohol use disorder and obesity.30 This is especially significant considering that loneliness is more prevalent than many other physical health conditions.25,31
Social connections can influence accountability and progress with day-to-day health goals
One study of those enrolled in a 15-week online weight-loss program found that those who identified an accountability “buddy” lost more weight and waist inches than those who did not identify a buddy.32 Similarly, a 2-year study of hospital employees found that co-workers’ food choices are influenced by those around them. Those eating together were more likely to mirror their co-workers’ food choices, whether they were healthy or unhealthy.33 Furthermore, peer groups can have an impact on one’s receptivity to health messaging. One study evaluated how social norms influenced participants’ receptivity to health messaging and found that participants with a more active social network were more likely to increase their physical activity in response to the health messaging.34
A strong sense of social connectedness doesn’t just bolster physical health – it can influence mental health, cognitive functioning and interactions with others
Unsurprisingly, loneliness can have a significant impact on mental health. Studies have found that loneliness can produce “higher negative mood, anxiety, anger, and depressive symptomatology.”35 One multiyear study found that loneliness could predict increases in depressive symptoms over 1-year intervals, but the opposite wasn’t true, meaning that depression itself isn’t an indicator for loneliness.8
On the flip side, positive social interactions can lead to beneficial mental health outcomes. For example, a study conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic found that German employees who felt their social interaction and social support needs were sufficiently met in the workplace had positive mental health outcomes (i.e., reduced anxiety and depression) compared to employees whose needs were not met, who reported higher levels of mental health disorders.36 Researchers concluded that the study results “suggest that the level of mental health disorders are lowest when employees’ social support at work matches their preferences.”36
One of the reasons loneliness is a crucial problem to address in the workplace is because it’s not just a siloed experience; loneliness can actually be contagious and influence the ways in which people interact with each other.35 Those experiencing loneliness can “feel more anxious, fear negative evaluation, and act more coldly toward others,” as well as be less charitable toward others.35 Although loneliness is contagious, research has shown the opposite is true as well. A study of data from a 20-year period indicated that happiness can spread up to three degrees of separation, and those who are surrounded by happy people are more likely to be happy in the future.37
Strong Social Connections Are Essential to a Thriving Work Environment
In addition to the physical and mental health impacts of social connections, there are significant implications for job satisfaction, performance and productivity. Employees who have a best friend at work are more likely to be satisfied with their job and recommend their workplace to others.38 And a study that evaluated multiplex relationships (co-workers who also were identified as friends) found that these multiplex relationships “significantly increased employees’ performance, as judged by their supervisor.”39 That’s because workplace friendships offer more opportunities to ask questions, seek advice and learn helpful information through informal channels.39
A sense of belonging at work is also critical to a thriving work environment. According to Harvard Business Review, belonging can lead to “a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk and a 75% reduction in sick days.”40
On the other hand, loneliness can be costly. Workers in the U.S. who report being lonely are:
- Twice as likely to miss a day of work due to illness;20
- Five times as likely to miss a day of work due to stress;20
- More likely to experience lower productivity (45%) than employees who were not lonely (54%);20 and
- More likely to produce lower quality of work (12%) compared to non-lonely workers (4%). 20
Ultimately, in the U.K., loneliness is estimated to cost employers over £2.5 billion pounds per year, while in U.S., it has been estimated to cost employers over $154 billion dollars per year.41,42
Recommendations for Employers to Improve Social Connectivity and Address Loneliness Among Employees
Given the evidence that social connectedness can improve health, well-being, job satisfaction, performance and productivity, employers are increasingly focused on it as part of their health and well-being strategy. In 2023, 42% of employers offer programs to help with loneliness and isolation and that number is expected to grow to 66% by 2024.43,44 The benefits of social connectedness can emerge from work and non-work relationships, so employers should consider a variety of programs to support both.
Below are a series of recommendations and examples employers can consider to workforce social connectedness:
- Host cross-functional social events and opportunities to connect with colleagues;
- Implement structures that encourage face-to-face collaboration;
- Inspire meaningful conversations and connections;
- Leverage technology to increase connections in a continually expanding world;
- Celebrate employees in big and small ways;
- Cultivate community connections; and
- Offer flexible work and leave policies to bolster connections outside work.
In Person Workforces
While technological evolutions allow colleagues to connect with peers across the globe, research shows that in-person interactions are still the ultimate mode of connection. Among a multitude of benefits, in-person interactions in the workplace heighten collaboration, idea generation and creativity, while also enabling individuals to “convey empathy, trust and humor” more quickly and seamlessly.45 For companies with an in-person workforce, there are numerous opportunities to bring employees together.
Host a variety of social events to encourage collegial connections
As employees return to in-person work more regularly, employers have an opportunity to facilitate workplace friendships. Research has shown that in-person interactions can yield strong connections more quickly than those formed from afar with technology.46 From community service activities to scavenger hunts to games and trivia to team birthday celebrations, there are almost endless ways to create in-person touchpoints. When hosting events, some considerations include offering opportunities that don’t involve alcohol, as well as being mindful of hosting events during regular working hours instead of requiring employees to dip into personal time for workplace social events.
Companies should also consider leveraging social events to connect cross-functional colleagues who might not otherwise interact on a daily basis. In addition to expanding opportunities for work friendships, cross-departmental introductions can enhance innovation, teamwork and continuous learning.47
Use meals to feed friendships
Shared meals can serve as a conduit to enhanced workplace connections. One study found that firefighters who dined together had better job performance and higher job satisfaction than firefighters who ate individually.48 Meals can also be a gateway to learning about other cultures. For example, one employer uses a monthly meal club to sample new foods from various colleagues’ cultures. Food can facilitate virtual connections, too. A fun and creative way to bring together a dispersed workforce is a company cookbook, where employees are encouraged to submit meaningful recipes that reflect their culture or family traditions. Employers can take this activity a step further by hosting on-site cooking events to bring employees together while sharing healthy and meaningful recipes.
Designate anchor days
For a workforce that’s not on-site 5 days a week, consider designating anchor days that encourage employees to gather in the same place at the same time. Seventy-one percent of employers currently offer a social day in the workplace for employees, and the practice is anticipated to grow over the next year.44 Research has shown that 2- to- 3 days in the office is ideal for employee engagement and well-being, balancing the need for flexibility with the ability to collaborate and build bonds in the workplace.45 Some companies provide free lunch on anchor days as an added incentive to bring people together. Similarly, some employers designate specific days for the leadership team to be in the office, allowing employees to plan accordingly if they’d like to meet in the office at the same time. Anchor days can also serve as a gateway to other well-being initiatives, including on-site biometric screenings and health fairs.
Implement structure to facilitate connections
Opportunities exist to encourage new connections, both through physical tweaks and cultivated relationships. For example, at on-site workplaces, employers have an opportunity to create friendly signals that encourage connections. Consider an initiative where employees working in cubes, co-working spaces, or café tables can display a sign that says, “Join Me” or “Focus Time.” A “Join Me” sign encourages colleagues to introduce themselves for an informal chat.
Other ways to facilitate connections include offering opportunities for career development mentorships and peer learning programs; in fact, 90% of employers anticipate offering mentorship or peer coaching programs by 2024.44 Starting or returning to the workplace is also an important time in the employee life cycle to promote collegial connections, which can be done by assigning “buddies” to new employees as they onboard (providing them with an immediate social network) or picking a point person for employees to check in with after returning from leave or a major life event.
Hybrid and Virtual Workforces
Creating opportunities for connections in the virtual sphere remains increasingly important for employers with hybrid or remote employees. Ninety-one percent of employees want to feel connected to their teammates and cite technology as an opportunity to build connections and collaborations.49 A survey of over 1,200 employees found that fully remote employees report 33% fewer friends at work compared to their peers who work in the office. To promote connections among colleagues in 2023, 96% of employers hold in-person or virtual get-togethers.44,44
To bridge the gaps of a dispersed workforce, consider the following virtual-friendly options:
Integrate the pillars of well-being
Physical activity challenges continue to be a popular and commonplace way of promoting healthy behaviors and encouraging employee engagement. Employers can amplify the social aspect of these challenges in a number of ways. For example, consider awarding bonus points to teams that include members from different departments or locations to promote a global team spirit. Many well-being platforms allow challenges to be set in a virtual location that can reflect the geography and culture of corporate offices around the world. Some employers have created challenges that guide employees through the different places around the world where their workforce is located, offering a chance to showcase what workspaces look like across the globe. When building physical activity challenges, ensure that the activities are inclusive by allowing steps, swim strokes and wheelchair clicks to count toward goals. Many employers also raise the stakes by tying donation amounts to the winning team’s accomplishments.
Leverage managers to create a more connected team
The impact managers have on employee well-being is well known. For example, in a recent survey, 69% of respondents indicated that their managers had the greatest impact on their well-being, even more so than doctors or therapists.50 In addition to their direct impact on employee well-being, managers also carry significant responsibility for contributing to a more connected workforce. Employees look to managers’ behavior as a guidepost for the types of social interactions that are deemed appropriate in the workplace. Managers can model positive social behaviors by engaging in appropriate and empathetic conversations with employees and carving out time for team building and social events, among other efforts. Author Shasta Nelson also calls on leaders to be vocal about how workplace friendships have benefited them throughout the years, so employees hear the clear message that workplace friendships are valued and encouraged.
Include conversation prompts to spark reflection and deeper connections
For both in-person and hybrid team meetings, encourage managers and team leads to kick off conversations with an icebreaker question. While icebreakers may seem trivial, they serve as a critical foundation to building a more effective team. Kicking off team conversations with an icebreaker creates a more relaxed environment, removes barriers to communication between colleagues, encourages the initiation of broader discussions, builds trust and encourages a shared ownership for participation among the team.51,52
While there are endless lists of icebreaker questions, the best workplace questions strike a balance between fun, lighthearted and workplace appropriate. A few sample questions to introduce to a team include:
- What's the first job you dreamed of having as a kid?
- What is one of your favorite holiday traditions?
- What’s your favorite thing about the place where you live?
- What is your favorite time of day and why?
- Who would be your dream dinner guest?
- What helps you when you're stressed?
- What was something you’ve done recently that made you feel joy?
- What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?
- Who, or what, was your biggest teacher or mentor?
Utilize virtual community platforms and tools to promote effective communication
Offer spaces online for employees to share their experiences and stories to create camaraderie. Research shows that sharing happy stories with other people develops interpersonal closeness between speakers and listeners. Using online tools and their video functions can also enhance work relationships, especially considering that 83% of employees use technology to collaborate.53 One study found that 72% of managers feel that employees who report to them are more engaged when they have their video on during online calls, which improves employee-manager relationships.54 In addition, 59% of employees felt that team- building activities were more effective, and 75% of employees found that the quality of their discussions with teammates and colleagues to be significantly better with the video feature on.54 Virtual tools like chat functions and video features allow for other means of communication beyond in-person dialogue, and for both a mix of formal and informal interactions. Also, encouraging the use of video during virtual meetings and activities can help build rapport.
Celebrate employees in big and small ways
Organizing employee recognition ceremonies may help employees feel rewarded, honored and seen, which can spark feelings of inclusion and belonging at work. In fact, recognizing the quality work and achievements of workgroups was found to increase profits of companies by 29%. Furthermore, employee engagement, productivity and performance are 14% higher in organizations with employee recognition than those without.55,56 Highlighting employee achievements can help them feel seen and can improve their relationships at work; when employees feel their work brings value, they may be more willing to share their ideas and collaborate with others, thus strengthening social connections in the workplace. Some opportunities to celebrate and recognize employees include work anniversaries, after milestone projects or random acts of appreciation like holiday gifts and thank-you cards.
Promote opportunities to engage with employee resource groups (ERGs)
Eighty-nine percent of employers offer ERGs, which are a popular way to promote familiarity and belonging and uncover common interests or goals. According to research, these factors are crucial ingredients to friendship formation in the workplace and help create a sense of belonging and pride.44,57 Employee sharing and support groups can foster dialogue about shared experiences or identities, increase workplace engagement and collaboration, help recruit and retain a diverse workforce, offer opportunities for personalized messaging and benefits for specific populations and provide opportunities for both personal and professional development.
For additional suggestions to create and maintain meaningful relationships in a remote environment, refer to the list of Actions to Address Loneliness in a Flexible Work Environment in Business Group on Health’s resource Integrating Flexible Work and Well-being.
Beyond the Workplace: How Social Connections Outside Work Enhance our Professional Lives
Offering opportunities for employees to broaden connections outside the workplace can have a multitude of benefits, including more connected communities, stronger familial ties and enhanced employee well-being. Connections built within and beyond the workplace can have reciprocal effects as well. The quality of relationships with co-workers can impact employees’ relationships at home, and vice versa.58 Employers can create opportunities for employees to strengthen non-work relationships in numerous ways, including through civic engagement and paid time off to spend with family and friends.
Create community ties through civic engagement
In 2023, 79% of employers include community involvement as a pillar of their well-being strategy.44 Benefits of this approach include fostering social connections, enhancing meaning and purpose, promoting an active lifestyle (depending on the type of volunteerism) and contributing to job satisfaction. Civic engagement opportunities like volunteering can benefit individuals by increasing their self-esteem, life satisfaction and educational and occupational achievement while broadening a sense of community.59 Other benefits of volunteering include reduced levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms.60
Furthermore, the act of community engagement is a social benefit that builds upon itself. Findings indicate that “those who are more connected to their communities are more likely to engage in service, and those who are engaged in service are more likely to feel connected to their communities and the individuals in it.”25 Research has also shown that those with a higher level of social connectedness reap more well-being benefits from volunteering, solidifying the argument for employers to encourage civic engagement. Companies also reap the benefits from volunteering. Research has shown that volunteering increases employee performance, makes employees more generous toward co-workers and can even attract potential applicants.61
Close to half of U.S. employers offer community volunteer programs, and a quarter of large employers offer paid time off for individual volunteering.61,62 Employers can provide both on-site and off-site opportunities for employees to engage with their community by doing the following:
- Designate a volunteer month and launch a communications campaign to encourage employees to utilize their paid volunteer time off, if available.
- Incorporate charity events with other parts of the well-being program, including physical activity challenges. For example, commit to a charity donation based on total employee activity.
- Tie a financial match to each volunteer hour reported to incentivize employees to give back. Some companies also offer the opportunity for employees to apply for volunteer grants to benefit charities they care about.
- Incorporate volunteering activities with new employee orientation to introduce employees to each other and instill company values at an early stage in the employee life cycle.
- Offer managers a budget for team building and social activities and encourage these activities to have a volunteer angle.
Family time and flexible work polices
Beyond promoting connections with colleagues, employers increasingly are putting policies and practices in place to enable employees to maintain a fulfilled life outside work and nourish relationships with loved ones.57 It’s well established that healthy family relationships have many benefits, including helping an “individual cope with stress, engage in healthier behaviors, and enhance self-esteem.”63 Time to build strong relationships outside the workplace can also positively contribute to the workplace. The World Economic Forum found that positive, loving relationships at home can contribute to “greater dedication and creativity” at work.58
Companies are providing flexible work policies, encouraging employees to use their time off, providing paid time away or flexibility for volunteerism and sponsoring events that incorporate family and friends (for example, both LinkedIn and Google have held “Take Your Parents to Work Day”).57,64 Overall, protecting time outside work to maintain and nourish connections with family and friends is becoming increasingly relevant.
For more ideas about leave and family-friendly benefits, explore the Business Group resource, Leave and Family-Friendly Benefits.65
Social connectedness is a critical business issue that has the power to transform employee health, well-being, productivity and job satisfaction. Employers are making strides to enhance social connectedness throughout their workforce. As hybrid and remote work options continue to coexist, finding creative ways to foster and maintain connections between colleagues remains a crucial component of improving employee health and well-being.
More TopicsArticles & Guides Culture and Strategy Job Satisfaction Social Connectedness
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