By Dr Kirsty Gardiner, Associate Trainer or WAW and Social Wellbeing Expert.
Our daily lives are filled with interactions with others. For example, at work we band together in teams to complete projects, at home we spend time with family and friends and even ordering a hot drink in a coffee shop requires talking to another person.
Given that we exist within such an expansive social world, it is no surprise that other people can have a significant impact on our sense of wellbeing. In fact, boosting social wellbeing is so important that even governments have recognised the need to mitigate against increasing levels of loneliness, and build high-functioning communities.
Yet, understanding the myriad ways in which our social connections can foster wellbeing is often not prioritised in the workplace. In this article, I outline why social wellbeing should be placed at the forefront of any workplace wellbeing strategy. I explain the science that links relationships to health and wellbeing, and provide practical guidance for how to create a culture and environment that enables positive relationships to emerge and flourish.
What is social wellbeing?
Social wellbeing is often referred to as having high quality connections that make us feel good – seems pretty straightforward right? However, social wellbeing is much more than simply having family, friends, or colleagues.
In fact, the roots of social wellbeing originate from the work of French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1893), who spoke of the importance of being socially integrated (i.e. belonging to and participating in groups) for building a healthy society. Durkeim understood that individuals are situated within social structures.
Drawing upon this, social wellbeing can be defined as the extent to which individuals have meaningful relationships with others and are active members of wider social groups. Both approaches to social wellbeing (i.e. on the individual level, and on the group level), confer numerous benefits.
How are social relationships linked to wellbeing?
When it comes to the effect other people have on our own wellbeing, the evidence base is vast and compelling. On an individual level, we can see that having positive and supportive relationships is linked with a host of psychological, and physical health and wellbeing outcomes including: improved cardiovascular, immune, and neuroendocrine functioning; reduced inflammatory biomarkers related to stress ; enhanced psychological adjustment, happiness, satisfaction with life, and meaning in life. In fact, social connections are so powerful that they are consistently associated with living a long and healthy life.
The same positive outcomes hold true for social wellbeing on the group level – having memberships to different social groups can provide behavioural guidance, belongingness, purpose and meaning, and is crucial to developing social identities.
One reason why social relationships are thought to have such a broad impact is because close others can provide social support which buffers against stress, and prompts positive physiological and psychological functioning.
On the flip side, a lack of social connections or group memberships, and/or the presence of toxic relationships, can have a disastrous impact on both mental and physical health (including depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation). Toxic groups can even erode societal norms and cause serious damage to the functioning of society.
In the workplace, social relationships have a significant bearing on job performance, resilience, inclusion and belonging, and engagement. It is therefore imperative that organisations not only root out bullying behaviours and try to build high quality connections, but centre social wellbeing within the business strategy and embed it into all organisational processes.
How can social wellbeing be embedded at work?
Organisations need to be thoughtful and intentional about how to build environments that foster social wellbeing. In fact, simply throwing people together and hoping they will get on is not a recipe for success, and can even backfire. So what can organisations do?
First and foremost, organisations need to get serious about creating positive cultural change – and this means investing in and creating a holistic wellbeing strategy that has a significant focus on social wellbeing (i.e. building out cultural practices and policies with social wellbeing in mind). Within a holistic approach, organisations have a plethora of interventions available to them to boost social wellbeing at both the individual and systemic (group) levels.
How can organisations improve social wellbeing at an individual level?
At the individual level, organisations can:
- Provide employees with training that builds personal capacity for compassion, gratitude, and empathy (all of which are effective in increasing one’s ability for social connectedness).
- Provide training programmes on interpersonal skills such as communication building, perspective taking, and empathetic listening.
- Utilise mentoring schemes which can help employees not only to upskill for their future career ambitions but to build a positive relationship with their mentor.
- Allow employees in teams to job-craft and utilise each individuals’ skills to accomplish team tasks.
- Get to know your employees and colleagues on a personal and professional level – particularly during the onboarding process. Doing so can help new employees to feel seen.
Training and mentoring can take the form of 8 week programmes as per mindfulness and Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM) programmes. The benefit of these types of training is twofold: not only will you be investing in your employees own personal development, but you will indirectly create a safer and more effective environment to nurture positive social relationships between employees.
How can organisations improve social wellbeing at a group level?
At the systemic (group) level, organisations can:
- Review how the working environment and business systems are designed, and identify ways to better facilitate high quality connections and high functioning teams. For example, workspaces can be redesigned to create more opportunities for connection by having offices where collaborative spaces are at the heart of the design. For remote workers this could look like company-wide virtual coffee hours.
- Kindness and gratitude (or pro-social behaviours more broadly) can be embedded into company values, policy, and performance metrics.
- Team-building initiatives can be implemented to create a sense of shared identity, such as ‘lunch and learns’ where individuals share a passion or something culturally important to them over food. Another powerful example that fosters positive emotions and aids in boosting social wellbeing between team members is strengths spotting (where you identify the top strengths you see in your colleagues).
- Provide extensive leadership and managerial training so that managers and leaders are equipped to support their team members to grow. This will help to build a culture of support and belongingness.
Take home message
Humans are – by their very nature – social creatures. As such, we are all deeply impacted by the relationships and connections we form with others. Given that we spend a significant amount of time at work (often in organisations that require collaboration with other people), and that a good working culture is the key reason for staying in a job, it is critical that companies provide more thought and space for fostering positive and supportive relationships. More than this, organisations need to consider how the culture they have built can ultimately help or hinder the emergence of such relationships.
For sustainable change to occur, start with reviewing your company’s policies & processes – can they be tweaked to focus on pro-social behaviour? What might it look like to weave kindness into your performance metrics? Taking a systemic approach to your social wellbeing strategy is likely to bear riper fruits than focusing solely on team-building activities or training programmes alone.
Want to know more about why relationships, especially at work, are so important? Take a read of our blog on this.