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Fostering Social Connection in the Workplace
By Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD
Why Social Connections Matter
Social connection is widely
viewed as a fundamental
human need, influencing a broad
spectrum of life. Although it is
perhaps most well recognized for
its influence on psychological
well-being, we now have robust
evidence indicating that social
connections are critical to phy-
and cognitive func-
risk for premature mortality.
Indeed, those who are more
socially connected are not only
happier, less depressed, and have greater satisfaction with life but also
have slower age-related declines in cognition,
faster wound healing,
and even longer lifeexpectancy.
Conversely, having few or poorquality
social connections carries a risk for premature mortality that is compa-
rable and exceed the risk associated with obesity and air pollution.
When we consider social connection, we may assume this
refers to our close relationships such as our relationship with a
spouse or romantic partner, children, extended family, and close
friends. Certainly, these close relationships are critical to social
connection, but the degree to which we are socially connected
also extends more broadly to include a variety of social ties, even
those who may not typically be viewed as close intimate relation-
ships. Indeed, there is good evidence for the influence of both
Brigham Young University
Editor’s Desk: Social Connection Issue 1307
strong and weak social ties within broader social networks on a
variety of health outcomes.
To really understand the full
scope of this social influence, we need to consider those we rely
on and interact with on a daily basis, including families, schools,
communities, and the workplace.
Defining Social Connectedness
It is important to clearly define social connection as this has impor-
tant implications for how it may be addressed. Social connection is
an umbrella term that refers to the ways in which one can connect to
others physically, behaviorally, cognitively, and emotionally. Social
connection can be broadly characterized as encompassing 3 major
components: (1) social connection as a source of structural support
via the physical or behavioral presence of relationships in our lives
(eg, size of social network, marital status, living alone, frequency of
social contact); (2) social connection as a source of functional sup-
port via the resources or functions our relationships provide or are
cognitively perceived to be available (eg, perceived or received sup-
port, loneliness); and (3) social connection as a source of quality
support via the positive and negative emotional nature of our rela-
tionships (eg, relationship satisfaction, conflict, strain; see Figure 1).
Epidemiological evidence clearly demonstrates that the structure,
functions, and quality of social relationships each significantly pre-
dict risk or protection.
Social connection can be thought of as a continuum of high social
connection (eg, large social network, high social support, relation-
ship satisfaction) to low social connection (or social disconnection;
eg, social isolation, loneliness, poor quality relationships). Similarly,
we can think of health risk as being on a continuum, such that being
highly socially connected is associated with protective effects while
social disconnection is associated with greater risk. For example,
although social isolation, loneliness, and relationship conflict are all
indicators of social disconnection, each represents different compo-
nents (structural, functional, and quality). Social isolation and lone-
liness are often used interchangeably, yet each represent very distinct
phenomenon. Social isolation refers to the absence or infrequent
contact with others (structural supports deficit), while loneliness
refers to the subjective perception of being alone or the mismatch
between one’s actual and desired level of social connection (func-
tional support deficit). Although these can co-occur, one may still
feel lonely despite being around others or having frequent contact.
Likewise, one may be isolated but not feel lonely. Importantly, hav-
ing high conflict in relationships (quality deficit) may occur in the
absence of loneliness or isolation. In other words, low social
connection (or social disconnection) can result from structural, func-
tional, or quality deficits.
Why Social Connection in the Workplace
Because many adults spend more waking hours at work than they do
with their own families, relationships may have a significant and
chronic influence on our health and well-being. The influence of
these relationships (or lack thereof) may affect individuals across
the spectrum of workplace environments, roles, and hierarchy. For
example, according to a recent Harvard Business Review CEO snap-
half of CEOs report experiencing feelings of lone-
liness. The feelings of isolation, and associated repercussions, are
also reported by others in leadership positions. Likewise, even
among health-care professionals whose job is to help others adjust,
loneliness was positively associated with somatization, exhaustion,
and work alienation.
Therefore, perceptions of loneliness may be
prevalent in the workplace.
Figure 1. Components of Social Connection.
1308 American Journal of Health Promotion 32(5)
Social disconnection in the workplace may also be the result of
poor quality relationships. While obstacles, deadlines, and mistakes
certainly contribute to workplace stress, coworkers can contribute
significantly as an important source of interpersonal stress. Workplace
relationships can be rife with incivility (eg, interpersonal mistreat-
ment, disregard for another’s feelings, rude or condescending com-
Across type of job and industry, 8.3%of those surveyed
report being bullied.
Work-related bullying might take the form of excessive monitoring
of work, unreasonable deadlines, unmanageable workload, and
meaningless tasks; while person-related bullying may take the
form of obvious verbal abuse persistent criticism, overt threats,
or more cunning acts like excluding or isolating the person, gossip
or rumors, and or practical jokes.
The recent #MeToo Movement illustrates the potential implica-
tions of poor quality relationships in the workplace. Whether it is
feelings of isolation or interpersonal strain, low social connection in
the workplace may significantly impact well-being.
Fostering Strong Connections Is Good for
Health and for Business
Some may not see a clear role for institutions and employers in addres-
sing social connection (or disconnection), believing it to be an issue of
one’s private, personal life. However, fostering social connection may
be good for employees and employers in a variety of tangible ways
that extend far beyond just ‘‘feeling good.’’ There is now sufficient
evidence to document that social disconnection has significant health
and economic costs.
Interpersonal conflict in the workplace is an important predictor of
and decreased well-being.
Social stressors, such as
perceptions of social evaluative threat, have been associated with
heightened magnitude of physiological (eg, cardiac autonomic, neu-
roendocrine) and affective (shame, embarrassment, anxiety, negative
affect, and self-esteem) responses
—and those who are lonely are
more sensitive to this.
Loneliness is characterized by a cognitive
bias, such that greater attention is paid to negative information,
greater perceptions of threat in social situations, greater attribution
of others’ intentions as hostile, and greater negativity in evaluations
of both self and others.
Therefore, loneliness may magnify the
already negative effects of social stressors in the workplace. Con-
versely, there is good reason to believe that supportive work envir-
onments may be protective. In a prospective study of job demand,
employees received periodic health assessments and tracked over
Among those reporting high levels of work-peer support
(coworkers who were helpful in solving problems, coworkers who
were friendly), mortality risk from all causes was significantly lower
even after controlling for known physiological and behavioral risk
Fostering social connections may also be good for business. Feelings
of loneliness among CEOs may also negatively impact performance.
For instance, among those who report loneliness, 61%report that it
hinders their performance. This was particularly true for first-time
CEOs: 70%of those who experience loneliness report that the feelings
negatively affect their performance. Regardless of organizational sta-
tus, lonelier individuals are more likely to feel estranged and less
connected to coworkers and more likely to experience a lack of
belongingness at work, both of which may lower commitment to their
organizations. This is troubling because greater commitment has been
demonstrated to lead to harder work and better performance compared
to weaker commitment.
Conversely, having strong meaningful connections at work is
associated with better outcomes. For example, a Gallup poll found
30%of respondents indicated that they had a best friend at work.
Those who had a best friend at work produced higher quality of work,
reported higher well-being, were less likely to get injured on the job,
and were 7 times more likely to be engaged in their jobs compared to
those who did not report having a best friend at work.
In an experi-
ment where workers wore high-tech badges that monitored movement
and interactions on a second-by-second basis to determine when
workers were most and least efficient, researchers found that even
small increases in social cohesion had large influences on better
This was true even when interactions were not work
related, suggesting that it wasn’t so much about the interaction as it
was about having a relationship. Thus, time spent socializing is not
wasted time. Taken together, these data suggest fostering social con-
nection in the workplace may increase productivity and lead to tan-
gible economic gains.
What Can Employers Do to Foster
Meaningful, High-Quality Social Connections?
Because there is no single cause for social disconnection, there is no
single recipe that we can all follow that will reduce isolation and
create connections—and a one size fits all approach is likely to fail.
However, research does point us to a few potential key ingredients.
When addressing social connection in the workplace, a multi-
factorial definition of social connection suggests we need to address
each of the components to effectively address risk and protection.
For instance, employers may implement strategies among employ-
ees by providing increased opportunities for socialization (eg, open
space offices, gathering place such as a watercooler or ping pong
table, social hour gatherings) to increase social contact (eg, struc-
tural supports). However, structural support is just one of the com-
ponents of social connection. Although structural support is
certainly important, if such interactions are primarily trivial or
superficial, then these efforts may not necessarily reduce percep-
tions of loneliness. Further, given the evidence of workplace conflict
and bullying, employers need to recognize that not all social inter-
action is positive. Truly addressing this issue means going beyond
simply increasing opportunities for interaction to implementing stra-
tegies that foster high-quality interactions in order to build high-
quality relationships. Efforts may also include leadership training
that promotes open communication and connections between lead-
ership and employees to achieve common goals.
should focus on increasing trust, collaboration, and positivity, as
well as promoting a feeling that one is valued and respected in the
workplace—all of which have been linked to better quality relation-
ships and well-being.
It is just as critical for employers to implement policies and stra-
tegies that foster meaningful relationships outside of work as within
the workplace—promoting a healthy work–life balance. Longer hours
do not always equate to greater productivity,
but do take time away
family, friends, and having a quality of life outside of work. Research
suggests that having a diversity of relationships is important.
Editor’s Desk: Social Connection Issue 1309
instance, a growing body of evidence suggests that network diversity
(a diversity of social roles) influences a variety of outcomes, including
better immune functioning
and white matter microstructural integ-
—both of which may help explain the diverse health effects
associated with social networks. Research has also shown that diver-
sity in the workplace can positively influence creativity and critical
decision-making, as well as financial returns.
Leadership and inclu-
sion of those from different backgrounds may provide different
approaches and perspectives, which in turn lead to better performance
outcomes. Similarly, having a diversity of types of relationships in
ones’ life may provide different kinds of resources (eg, advice, assis-
tance, companionship, affection), which in turn may influence emo-
tional and physical health in different ways. Workplace relationships
are unlikely to fulfill all our social needs (eg, emotional intimacy,
physical affection), emphasizing the need for employers to recognize
the importance of relationships within the workplace and outside the
Workplace environment and policies need to communicate the
value of social connections as well as put them into actionable prac-
tices and policies. As a model of such practice and policies, we can
look to Denmark, which ranks as the best in the world for work–life
and is also consistently one of the happiest country in the
world. Factors contributing to the work–life balance included flexible
work hours, paid childcare, a minimum of 5 weeks paid holiday, and
an 8 AM to 5 PM work day with 35- to 40-hour work weeks—all of
which allow time for strengthening social relationships outside of
work. With longer work days becoming the norm in the United States
and other countries, it is notable that data across Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development countries show longer work
days are actually associated with reduced productivity and the gross
domestic product per hour worked.
Thus, maintaining work–life
balance may be good for our relationships and for business.
Many employers offer employee wellness programs and retirement
planning. Such workplace wellness programs often include screen-
ings, immunizations, fitness classes, and even wellness coaching—
fostering social connection needs to be included among this list. Evi-
dence clearly demonstrates the risk associated with low social con-
nection is comparable or exceeding other factors known to influence
risk (eg, body mass index, physical activity, flu vaccinations).
is further evidence that the prevalence of social isolation and lone-
liness is comparable with other widely prioritized risk factors (eg,
obesity, smoking, physical inactivity).
Therefore, fostering social
connections should receive the same degree of emphasis and resources
as these other factors in workplace wellness programs. Further, many
employers provide financial planning to help employees plan for
retirement. Retirement is also associated with significant disruptions
and reduction in one’s social connections. Such retirement planning
should go beyond assisting with financial preparation to educate indi-
viduals on how to prepare socially for retirement (eg, preparing
socially for changes in health, living arrangements, maintaining social
ties and purpose, community engagement, etc). Cultivating a reliable
support system takes time. Trust and social capital are built over time.
Whether it is financial resources or social resources—if you wait until
you need it, it is likely too late.
To truly solve loneliness requires the engagement of institutions
where people spend the bulk of their time: families, schools, social
organizations, and the workplace. Companies in particular have the
power to drive change at a societal level not only by strengthening
connections among employees, partners, and clients but also by
serving as an innovation hub that can inspire other organizations to
—Vivek Murthy 19th US Surgeon General
We now have robust evidence that being socially connected has a
significant impact on our health, well-being, and even our risk for
premature mortality. Further, there is evidence that a significant por-
tion of the population is effected and social disconnection is grow-
Given most adults spend the majority of their waking hours
working, it is important to consider social connection in the context
of work. The workplace can be a source of isolation, loneliness, and
social conflict; likewise individuals bring their existing level of social
connection to the workplace. In many professions, long hours can
isolate one from their families and friends. Further, in professions
where there is a significant amount of solitary work, there is little
opportunity for connection within the workplace. Just as there is spil-
lover between work and life stressors, there is likely spillover effects
of social disconnection. Whether it is social isolation, loneliness, or
conflict, it is clear that the level of social (dis)connection may be
brought to the workplace (eg, loneliness effecting work), occur in the
context of the workplace (eg, problematic relationships), or caused by
the workplace (eg, work isolates you from loved ones).
Given the workplace may be both a source of disconnection or
conversely a means of connecting socially, institutional-level supports
are needed. Workplace policies and practices that foster meaningful
high-quality relationships may range from careful attention to work-
place environment, wellness and retirement planning programs, and
policies that foster a work–life balance. Of course, such practices and
policies should be evidence based and subject to periodic review to
ensure that strategies are implemented effectively.
Workplace institutions, whether it be business, education, enter-
tainment, health, or law, can also directly address the issue by being a
source of innovative products, practices, and services that raise aware-
ness, directly facilitate or nurture greater social connection, and/or
tackle current barriers. The possibilities are nearly limitless, but
efforts should always be evaluated for potential unintended negative
effects (eg, Facebook is linked to poorer well-being
) to ensure their
integrity of purpose and effectiveness. If done well, institutional-level
efforts may have a much larger societal influence,
shifting the tide of
social disconnection that currently characterizes much of society to
create a more socially connected society. Importantly, evidence sug-
gests that addressing social connection is good not only for health and
well-being but also for business.
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The FACCTs of (Work) Life: How Relationships (and
Returns) Are Linked to the Emotional Culture of
By Olivia (Mandy) O’Neill, PhD
It was a few days before Valen-
tine’s Day when the call came
in from a journalist at a major US
newspaper. ‘‘Professor O’Neill, I
was wondering if you could com-
ment on a story I’m writing ...’’
My response had started to
you so much for thinking about
me, but my research is not about
that kind of love,the kind we cele-
brate on Valentine’s Day. My
research is about companionate
love, which is actually a much
more common form of love that
scholars such as Barb Fredrick-
son and her collaborators have widely documented.’’ The journalist
persisted, and we had a good conversation about why romantic
love was different from companionate love—the fondness, affec-
tion, caring, compassion, and tenderness we feel and express for
friends, family, acquaintances, and—yes—coworkers.
The journey to studying fondness, affection, caring, compassion,
and tenderness—or ‘‘FACCT’’—as I’ve begun calling it, began with
my collaborator Sigal Barsade and a visionary CEO at a long-term
healthcare facility and hospital in the northeastern United States. In
an industry struggling with major institutional changes, financial crises,
and high rates of turnover and burnout among staff, this was an exemp-
lary organization, distinguished not only by great patient care but also
by having one of the highest rates of staff satisfaction and lowest rates of
turnover in the industry. The CEO knew her organizational was doing
well, but she wanted to know why they were doing so well and howthey
could be even better. After conducting an assessment of the hospital’s
emotional culture—the visible norms and artifacts, underlying values
and assumptions reflecting degree of perceived appropriateness, and
actual expression or suppression of discrete emotions within a social
that the single most important and defining fea-
ture of the organization’s culture was love,specifically,theFACCT
being expressed by staff members in a unit toward one another.
What’s Love Got to Do With It?
To be clear, every hospital or health-care facility needs compassion
and caring as part of its culture—that’s intrinsic to and inseparable
from health-care mission and commitment to patient care. What is
different about organizations with a strong emotional culture of com-
panionate love is that caring and compassion (along with affection,
fondness, and tenderness) is expressed by staff members toward one
another, often behind closed doors, in offices, in the break rooms, at
potlucks and happy hours—in other words, in places where patients,
clients, or customers never see their interactions. It’s akin to the love
you feel for family and close friends, but in my research,
it is love
expressed by employees through cultural artifacts, shared values,
norms, and assumptions at work and measured through trained rater
observations, employee surveys, and semistructured interviews. While
artifacts are things you can directly observe, such as how people
personalize their workplace with photos of friends and family or pos-
ters on the wall, values are more abstract and might include words like
‘‘caring’’ and ‘‘support.’’ Norms refer to expectations for behavior
such as writing little notes when someone is going through a hard
time or taking the time to check in with one another and inquire about
the important people and events in one another’s lives. Assumptions
have to do with the taken-for-granted, unobservable nature of FACCT
and the extent to which it explains why people do at work what they do
every day, often outside of conscious awareness.
As it turned out, this approach to thinking about work relationships
was quite radical, not just because it was different than the way we
think about ‘‘caring’’ at work, but because the word ‘‘love’’ had not
been used very much outside of the personal relationship domain. To
some business practitioners, ‘‘love’’ equated to ‘‘workplace romance’’
and ‘‘affection’’ conjured scenes that worried even the most open-
minded human resources (HR) professionals. Another challenge came
from the academic community itself. When my collaborator and I first
shared our results, some business scholars simply couldn’t believe that
workplace relationships could run deep enough to be considered love.
Fortunately for us, research isn’t like Santa Claus: It doesn’t matter
whether you believe in it, it matters whether you can prove it, which
we did both in the health-care facility and in a survey study of thou-
sands of managers in 7 different industries.
The results? Being in
departments or organizations with a strong culture of companionate
love predicted a myriad of outcomes, not just employee attitudes such
as higher job satisfaction, lower emotional exhaustion, and better
teamwork, but also benefits for patients: improved mood, better qual-
ity of life, and less likelihood of expensive emergency room (ER)
George Mason University
1312 American Journal of Health Promotion 32(5)