During the height of the pandemic, when many companies were forced to shift to remote working arrangements, there were countless studies published about the impacts of social isolation—whether on productivity, company culture, or individuals themselves.
But even after “social distancing” left the vernacular and organizations returned to the office or created remote and hybrid models, employees are still dealing with a loneliness epidemic. According to the American Psychological Association’s (APA’s) 2023 Work in America Survey, over a quarter of all employees still report intense feelings of social disconnection or isolation from colleagues in the workplace.
Of course, this degree of social isolation at work wasn’t always the case. So what changed, and why have social ties become more crucial than ever before, especially as we head into the highly-anticipated fall season?
Why Are Social Connections So Important?
Prior to 2020, research on social connectedness in the workplace was few and far between—some studies even framed employee camaraderie as an incentive rather than a necessity.
Having strong social bonds in the workplace isn’t a new phenomenon and has always been essential for fostering engagement and morale. However, employees today find it more difficult to form and cultivate connections in the workplace—and this is especially true for young employees navigating the post-pandemic workforce for the first time.
But it isn’t for lack of social skills.
Whether teams are remote, hybrid, or fully in-person, they often face the same four challenges:
- Company culture isn’t a priority.
- There aren’t enough opportunities for social engagement.
- Employees are burned out.
- Social wellbeing is not incentivized.
And the results are what one might expect…
The Impacts of Isolation
When employees lack connection and supportive relationships in the workplace, it can lead to a number of consequences, both for them and their employers.
To understand the impacts, let’s take a closer look at the three primary areas that loneliness affects:
Mental and Emotional Wellbeing
The first and most obvious impacts of social disconnection are the mental health issues that regularly accompany feelings of loneliness.
According to a recent study, when employees don’t receive the desired level of social support and interaction at work, they’re more likely to experience an overall decrease in mental health—both inside and outside the workplace.
Meanwhile, the inverse is also true; those who receive more interaction are increasingly likely to show improvements in mental health, which has cascading benefits on performance, morale, and engagement.
When left unchecked, social isolation has also been known to increase the risk of a number of physiological issues in individuals, such as:
- Heart disease
- Early death
In fact, the physical impacts of social isolation are so severe that according to the National Academy of Sciences, a lack of social relationships in older adults can actually increase the risk of cardiovascular disease by 29%, stroke by 32%, and dementia by as much as 50%.
Finally, widespread social disconnection at work can also hurt both team and company morale.
While the health of an organization is not the same as a person’s, loneliness can still impact company goals through low engagement, reduced productivity, higher attrition rates, absenteeism, and more. On the other hand, improving social support at work can dramatically improve the wellbeing of employees and organizations at large, as workers show up ready to engage.
How To Foster Social Connections in the Workplace
Humans are naturally social creatures. Whether it’s a family member or close friend, a co-worker, or both, people rely on relationships with others to feel fulfilled.
When employers address these needs in the workplace, it can go a long way toward benefiting the health and wellbeing of employees and reaching organizational benchmarks. That’s why it’s imperative to fold extracurricular activities and team-building opportunities into your larger wellbeing strategy.
For example, creating opportunities for social connectedness between employees can lead to:
- Healthier lifestyle choices inside and outside the workplace
- Long-lasting and reoccurring engagement and job satisfaction
- Drastic reduction in work-related stress, burnout, and social isolation
- Overall increase in retention and decrease in turnover
Now that we understand why social connectedness is so crucial for helping employees thrive at work, let’s look at a few ways employers can create worthwhile social opportunities for workforces:
- Break Down Barriers
- Encourage Regular Interactions
- Make Run-of-the-Mill Meetings Fun
- Host Social Events
- Organize Team-Building Activities
The first step toward encouraging social connection in the workplace is creating an inclusive environment that welcomes authenticity and respect.
Employers should not only be open to diverse perspectives and experiences—they should drive them to create a culture of mutual respect. Doing so can break down barriers in communication and lay the foundation for effective understanding and meaningful connections across all levels of the organization.
For example, with September being Hispanic Heritage Month, now is a great time to align programming to celebrate the culture, experiences, and accomplishments of Hispanic/Latinx employees.
The next step is to encourage interactions in the workplace by modeling the behavior and social skills you wish to see.
Maintaining a friendly, approachable demeanor can set the tone for the whole work environment. For example, managers can lead by example by actively recognizing employee achievements and hard work. Not only will this improve morale, but it will encourage other employees to do the same for each other, creating a supportive environment for everyone.
You can also look for ways to make day-to-day operations more engaging by creating opportunities for fun and lighthearted social interactions.
Whether your workforce is in-person or virtual, encourage managers and colleagues to leave time at the beginning or end of meetings to check in with each other’s personal lives. Asking about weekend plans or discussing the latest movies or TV shows are a few easy ways to break up the work day, bond on a human level, and foster more meaningful social connections.
Going a step further, organizing non-work-related events during or outside of regular business hours is an incredibly effective way for teams to bond outside of the typical workday.
With fall just around the corner, hosting seasonal outings like harvest festivals, pumpkin carving contests, or apple orchard visits are effective ways to attract interest and get employees excited about the change of seasons. These types of social activities are crucial for employees to share experiences and form bonds that have the potential to forge lasting relationships.
Facilitating team-building activities is not only a great way to build social connections and rapport—it’s also an incredibly effective stress reliever. While game-oriented activities aren’t for everyone, there are plenty of ways to make them more engaging for those who still want social interaction opportunities.
At WellRight, we specialize in developing holistic wellness programs tailored to transforming organizations into communities. Contact one of our specialists to learn more about how we can help you nurture the social wellbeing of your workforce.