This is the fourth post in a six-part series focusing on the Six Dimensions of Wellness: emotional, occupational, physical, social, intellectual, and spiritual. Each post features a different dimension of wellness. This post will discuss social wellness and the importance of building meaningful connections with others.
Some people have close friendships that span a lifetime. Those trusting, comfortable, and positive relationships add quality to a person’s life. For Bob Green, a bloody nose during a kindergarten reading circle led to a 50-year friendship that ended prematurely with his friend’s untimely death. Reflecting on the decades that spanned both good times and bad, Green wrote, “There are a handful of people, during your lifetime, who know you well enough to understand when the right thing to say is to say nothing at all. Those people—and there will be, at most, only a few of them—will be with you during your very worst times.”
Some people meet someone for the first time and feel an immediate bond. Patricia Coler-Dark met her good friend Mary Lou in a most unusual place—a cemetery. Years later, she shared their story with Reader’s Digest. “I met Mary Lou 14 years ago, while tending the grave of my 34-year-old son Kevin just weeks after he passed,” Coler-Dark recalled. “Mary Lou was visiting her son Gary. She smiled, and soon we were sharing our stories—not only about our sons but about life in general. On my next visit with Kevin, I saw a piece of paper sticking out from under a rock—an inspirational note from Mary Lou. I wrote her back and put my note under the same rock. A week later, I returned to find another note from Mary Lou. We went back and forth like this for years. Today, we still see each other, but usually over a hot fudge sundae. We talk and laugh and rarely feel the need to discuss our deep pain. That’s why we are friends for life.”
We need food and water to survive. And we need people we can count on and who will help us feel like we belong. Think about the movie, Castaway. A guy is stuck on an island. Alone. And he gets lonely. Very lonely. He wants to be around other people, but no one is around. So he names a volleyball “Wilson” and treats it like a person. Why? He needs contact with others. It’s tough to be fully cut off from other people. That’s why social wellness—the ability to interact with people around you, use good communication skills, have meaningful relationships, respect yourself and others, and create an effective support system—is so important. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs lists social needs immediately after physiological and safety needs with good reason.
The science of loneliness
Psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichman observed, “Loneliness seems to be such a painful, frightening experience that people will do practically everything to avoid it.” She clarified that solitude and aloneness aren’t necessarily loneliness. Some people “experience the infinity of nature” and find peace. For others, seclusion can “yield creative artistic or scientific products.” It is also possible to be surrounded by people and yet feel lonely. Humans are “born with the need for contact and tenderness”—and mental and physical health suffer when the longing for closeness with others is unfulfilled. Research shows the health risks of social isolation are comparable to the risks associated with obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure. In fact, lack of social connections can increase the risk of death by at least 50 percent.
Two out of five American adults feel alone (40%) and isolated (43%) according to a recent survey, and that can leave them feeling disconnected, misunderstood, insecure, and stressed. These feelings spill into the workforce and impact employers by:
- Lowering productivity
- Harming employee loyalty when there is less of a group, collectivist culture
- Increasing rates of employee burnout
- Decreasing employee performance
As the Global Wellness Institute (GWI) report The Future of Wellness at Work observed, “wellness and work can create a mutually enhancing virtuous circle. When we feel healthy and balanced, we bring energy, focus, and motivation to work, and we are more productive…. Having friendships and trust at work not only increases our productivity as workers, but also improves our personal wellbeing.” That’s why it is imperative that employers expand workplace wellness programs to foster social interactions that promote healthy office friendships.
The social salve
Positive social connections at work mean that people get sick less often, recover twice as fast from surgery, experience less depression, learn faster and remember longer, tolerate pain and discomfort better, display more mental acuity, and perform better on the job. Productivity improves 20-25% in organizations with well-connected employees. They tend to have healthier habits. And they are more loyal and less stressed.
Socialization, positive interactions, and authentic relationships—in other words, having friends at work—is a factor in whether an employee feels the employer cares. In fact, 71% of millennials want to build close relationships at work. But simply stocking the lunchroom with table games in hopes of boosting socialization won’t work. According to The Future of Wellness at Work survey, “Only 25% of employees believe that their company offers a wellness program because they care about workers’ health and wellbeing. Fifty-eight percent believe their program exists only to cut company health costs, while another 17% believe it’s in place to make employees work harder/be more productive.” Employee productivity, satisfaction, and wellness are influenced by how employers cultivate social networks and authentic caring.
So what’s the formula for social wellness?
Specific methodologies and approaches depend on the employee population. But here are six ways you can foster a positive work environment where employees can develop social wellness.
- Make it easy for employees to talk to each other. Encourage employees to step away from their devices and interact with each other. Provide an area at work for employees to eat lunch together and interact during breaks. At holidays, treat employees to a healthy meal. And plan optional social events both within the workday and outside the workday, including team-building activities like going to an escape room, wellness challenges like taking an exercise class together, and volunteer opportunities where coworkers can socialize while giving back.
- Encourage team collaboration on projects. Your company benefits in at least two ways when employees interact with personnel from other departments who they may not work with on a daily basis. First, they will come up with creative ideas and solutions that might not have been imagined in isolation. Second, employees will develop mutual trust. Be sure to utilize video conferencing to include remote workers in all meetings.
- Make it easy for employees to feel good about themselves. It’s easier to trust and feel good about someone else when you feel good about yourself. So recognize employees for hard work. Praise them for acts of kindness. And encourage employees to bring in pictures of themselves doing things that make them proud, like their backpack trip last summer or their recent marathon finish.
- Help new employees integrate. An office bingo or Who’s Who Challenge that requires new employees to find out interesting and important information about their co-workers encourages conversation. So do weekly team potlucks, walk groups, and stand-up meetings that begin with collective discussions that help individuals identify with the team. And consider organizing your employees into small groups to for wellness program initiatives – integrating “newbies” with more seasoned staff – and using online social platforms to increase social interaction and boost engagement in healthy habits as well.
- Create a culture of care. For GenX employees (born 1965-1978), that includes having friends at work and being able to enjoy work-life balance. For Millennials (born 1979-1996), the primary factors are a wellness program that encourages healthy eating; a positive work environment where people know they are respected, valued, and heard; career autonomy and recognition; and time to socialize with co-workers and managers. Showing compassion can help managers prevent staff burnout in these populations. Many Boomers (born 1946-1964) are looking for positions within organizations that have social purpose and that provide them with a robust wellness program to increase their physical wellness. Encourage employees to provide feedback on what type of social interactions they would like to see at the company, as well as the kinds of social causes or community outreach resonates with them.
- Practice social skills. You can’t make good feelings or positive friendships happen, but you can help employees practice the skills that lead to friendship. Hold seminars on how to build and maintain quality relationships. Give them opportunity to build their social connections and track their progress daily by sharing our Strengthen Social Bonds health challenge with them. You can even turn it into a month-long Health Challenge™ as a part of your wellness program.
Ready to get started? Download our Health Challenge™ Strengthen Social Bonds which includes:
- A basic quiz for participants to find out whether they have a healthy social network
- An example illustrating the importance of social connections
- The benefits of social wellness for physical and mental health
- Tips on how to build strong bonds with friends, family, and coworkers
- A calendar to track how many days each month participants take action to strengthen their bonds with others
Wellsource, Inc. has been a premier provider of evidence-based Health Risk Assessments and Self-Management Tools for four decades, making us one of the longest-serving wellness companies in the industry. With a strong reputation for scientific research and validity, we offer an innovative family of products that empower wellness companies, health plans, ACOs, and healthcare providers to inspire healthy lifestyles, prevent disease, and reduce unnecessary healthcare costs. Our assessments connect lifestyle choices with healthy outcomes, measure readiness to change for maximum results, and drive informed decisions with actionable data.
Works Cited (in progress)
Breen, Bob. “Friends for Life.” AARP The Magazine, AARP, Feb. 2011, www.aarp.org/relationships/friends/info-2006/friends_for_life.html.
Reader’s Digest Editors. “22 Heartwarming Stories of True Friendship That Will Make You Call Your Bestie.” Reader’s Digest, Reader’s Digest, www.rd.com/advice/relationships/stories-of-friendship/.
“Social Wellness.” University of California, Riverside Wellness Program, University of California, Riverside, wellness.ucr.edu/social_wellness.html.
Burton, Neel. “Our Hierarchy of Needs.” Psychology Today, 17, Sep. 2017, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201205/our-hierarchy-needs.
Fromm-Reichmann, Frieda. “Loneliness.” Psychiatry: Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes, 1959, 22:1-15. Reprinted in Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 1990, icpla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Loneliness-Frieda-Fromm-Reichman-1990-Contemp.-Psychoanal.26-305-329.pdf.
Bevacqua, Julie. “The Impact of Social Wellness and Connection in the Workplace.” Rise, risepeople.com, 28 Mar. 2019, risepeople.com/blog/social-wellness-in-the-workplace/.
University of Arizona. “Poor Social Skills May Be Harmful to Health.” ScienceDaily, 06 Nov. 2017, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/11/171106090116.htm.
Lewis, Tanya. “This Common Characteristic May Be as Big a Risk to Your Health as Smoking.” Business Insider, BusinessInsider.com, 04 Jan. 2016, www.businessinsider.com/how-social-isolation-affects-your-health-2016-1.
Seppälä, Emma and Kim Cameron. “Proof that Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive.” Harvard Business Review, HBR.org, 01 Dec. 2015, hbr.org/2015/12/proof-that-positive-work-cultures-are-more-productive.
Valtorta, Nicole, et al. “Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies.” Heart, British Medical Journals, July 2016, 102:1009-1016, heart.bmj.com/content/102/13/1009.
Sutin, Angelina, et al. “Loneliness and Risk of Dementia.” The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, gby112, Oxford University Press, 26 Oct. 2018, doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gby112.
Cacioppo, JT, et al. “Loneliness as a Specific Risk Factor for Depressive Symptoms: Cross-sectional and Longitudinal Analyses.” Psychology and Aging, American Psychological Association, Mar. 2006, 21(1):140-151, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16594799.
Cole, Steven, et al. “Myeloid differentiation architecture of leukocyte transcriptome dynamics in perceived social isolation.” PNAS, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 08 Dec. 2015, 112(49):15142-15147, doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1514249112.
Shulevitz, Judith. “The Lethality of Loneliness.” The New Republic, NewRepublic.com, 12, May 2013, newrepublic.com/article/113176/science-loneliness-how-isolation-can-kill-you.
Ninivaggi, Frank. “Loneliness: A New Epidemic in the USA.” Psychology Today, 12 Feb. 2019, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/envy/201902/loneliness-new-epidemic-in-the-usa.
Karimi, Saeed, et al. “The relationship between sociability and productivity.” Journal of Education and Health Promotion, 28 Aug. 2014, 3:104, 10.4103/2277-9531.139696.
Lincoln, James and Bernadette Doerr. “Cultural Eﬀects on Employee Loyalty in Japan and The U.S.: Individual– or Organization-Level?” IRLE Working Paper No. 116-12, Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, University of California, Berkeley, Jan. 2012, irle.berkeley.edu/workingpapers/116-12.pdf
Seppälä, Emma and Marissa King. “Burnout at Work Isn’t Just About Exhaustion. It’s Also About Loneliness.” Harvard Business Review, HBR.org, 29 June 2017, hbr.org/2017/06/burnout-at-work-isnt-just-about-exhaustion-its-also-about-loneliness.
Ozcelik, Hakan and Sigal Barsade. “Work Loneliness and Employee Performance.” Faculty Research, College of Business Administration, California Sacramento University and Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, May 2012, faculty.wharton.upenn.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Work_Loneliness_Performance_Study.pdf.
Global Wellness Institute. “The Future of Wellness at Work.” Jan. 2016. globalwellnessinstitute.org/press-room/press-releases/global-wellness-institute-releases-report-and-survey-on-the-future-of-wellness-at-work/.
Seppälä, Emma and Kim Cameron. “Proof That Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive.” Harvard Business Review, HBR.org, 01 Dec. 2015, hbr.org/2015/12/proof-that-positive-work-cultures-are-more-productive.
Wilson, Fred. “Is Socializing in The Workplace Important for Team Productivity?” eLearning Industry, elearningindustry.com, 16 Dec. 2018, elearningindustry.com/socializing-workplace-important-team-productivity.
Wellsource. “Why Social Interaction Is Important at Work.” Wellsource.com, 22 July 2014, blog.wellsource.com/why-social-interaction-is-important-at-work.
Muniz, Katherine. “The Value of Encouraging Socializing in the Workplace.” Fingercheck, fingercheck.com, 09 Oct. 2017, fingercheck.com/the-value-of-encouraging-socializing-in-the-workplace/.
Kohll, Alan. “5 Reasons Social Connections Can Enhance Your Employee Wellness Program.” Forbes magazine, forbes.com, 31 Jan. 2018, www.forbes.com/sites/alankohll/2018/01/31/5-ways-social-connections-can-enhance-your-employee-wellness-program/#2f0b43d527c4.
Giang, Vivian. “71% of Millennials Want Their Co-Workers to Be a ‘Second Family.’” Business Insider, businessinsider.com, 15 Jun. 2013, www.businessinsider.com/millennials-want-to-be-connected-to-their-coworkers-2013-6.
Wellsource. “Building Relationships Enhances Culture of Wellness.” Wellsource.com, 25, June 2015, blog.wellsource.com/building-relationships-enhances-culture-wellness.
Wellsource. “Increase Participation with Social Incentives.” Wellsource.com, 21 Mar. 2012, blog.wellsource.com/increase-participation-social-incentives.
Carpenter, Dave. “More boomers aspire to careers with social purpose.” Associated Press, 07, Sep. 2012. https://finance.yahoo.com/news/more-boomers-aspire-careers-social-213113003.html;_ylt=A2KJjagMDk1QV3kAZZTQtDMD.
Wellsource. “Workplace Wellness in 2018: The HAL Advice to Save Your Population.” Wellsource.com, 13 Apr. 2018, blog.wellsource.com/workplace-wellness-hal-advice-save-population.
Walton, Alice. “7 Ways Loneliness (And Connectedness) Affect Mental Health.” Forbes magazine, forbes.com, 30 Oct. 2018, www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2018/10/30/7-ways-loneliness-and-connectedness-affect-mental-health/#48f18cdce1dc.