May 24, 2023

Loneliness is the New Smoking. Here's Why Employers Should Care

Companies know that smoking is bad for business. It’s associated with more illness and more sick days. And it costs more: extra cleaning, healthcare expenses and as much as 30% more in fire and property insurance premiums. More than a third of U.S. workplaces offered smoking cessation programs in 2020. Smoking is a problem companies don't ignore. But they do ignore something equally dangerous: social disconnection.

The Surgeon General released an advisory concluding that social disconnection is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S., and its physical effects are making people sick. Social disconnection is the new smoking, but most workplaces see it as a personal issue, not a business one.

They couldn’t be more wrong. Disconnection costs businesses $154 billion a year through absenteeism and untold productivity loss. We’ve known for years that social isolation impairs executive function and accelerates cognitive decline. Disconnected colleagues are hurting and they’re hurting your performance and productivity. Considering that many Americans spend more time at work than with their families, deepening relationships and fostering high-quality social connections at work can be a powerful antidote.

But to be clear, social connections don’t just mean happy hour or the water cooler chats we’ve mythologized since Covid killed the traditional workplace. True social connection is about creating moments of meaning that drive aligned purpose and belonging. Small or large affirmations that your voice matters, your colleagues trust you, your organization needs you. Social connection, or social capital, is the glue that holds your workplace together: how teams work together, how leaders recognize and reward good work, how problems get surfaced and solved.

Connection might sound fluffy to some, but it’s not. Here are three science-based reasons why social connection should be on the C-suite agenda.

  1. Socially Connected Employees Are More Productive

    Isolated employees are neither happy nor engaged. But science tells us that creating opportunities for employees at all levels to connect with each other more frequently increases productivity. In a powerful experiment, researchers at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory analyzed social interactions among call center operators at Bank of America. They outfitted them with “sociometers,” small wearable devices that measured their interactions with other operators. They found that more interactive team members had faster call times, less stress and the same approval ratings as their less social peers. Intrigued, they convinced the company to restructure coffee breaks to pull more people from the phones at the same time and enable broader socializing. The results were astounding: a 20% reduction in average call handling time among the lowest performing teams and 8% in the center overall. Changing the break schedule in ten other call centers (25,000 employees) caused significant jumps in employee satisfaction and boosted productivity by $15 million dollars a year.

    Pulling people out of their chairs to deepen their relationships created tangible financial results. Social connection is the currency of productivity. You don’t have to outfit your people with devices to measure their interactions, but a little more intentional time to engage really pays.
  2. Socially Connected Employees Are More Innovative

    Picture an organization that’s like a sponge soaking up new ideas. Researchers call this “absorptive capacity,” a company's ability to innovate – to identify new ideas and use them to improve their business. The companies that do this well have employees who understand their shared capabilities. They recognize a promising idea because they know which of their colleagues has the expertise to shape it into something new. This requires a sophisticated and dynamic social network where people know each other’s strengths and can navigate the right challenge to the right person.

    Creativity isn’t limited to R&D, marketing or innovation teams. The most important ideas often come to life at the intersections between colleagues separated by hierarchy and function. I once worked with a machinist who worked nights to become an engineer, only to feel dismayed by the gulf between his new role and his old colleagues. The machinists knew the machines best. But his new engineering colleagues saw themselves as the experts, barely engaging with the machinists when it came to designing new products. Hierarchy impeded their social connection and hindered their ability to innovate. Intentionally making connections across functions opened up a wellspring of new ideas for the company. If you want more innovation, connect your people like a spider web, not a top-down org chart.
  3. Socially Connected Employees Create Smarter Teams

    Imagine a jazz ensemble. It's a group of highly accomplished individuals, riffing and improvising to perform a piece together. Legendary jazz musician Wynton Marsalis explains that jazz is a conversation, constantly changing as the players adjust to the music and each other. “Together, you discover that adjusting to one another is as important a skill as soloing,” he said. They perform in concert with each other’s talents, listening, watching and reacting to where the improvisation is heading.

    Your teams may not be musicians, but they can riff, adjust and perform at the top of their game if they work to develop collective intelligence. That’s when the team is smarter than all the individual team members. Collectively intelligent teams have heightened social skills to hear each other better and make room for diverse talents and perspectives. Their social connections help them invite each other’s insights and build on each other’s ideas to create something new. The most connected teams learn from each other, grounded in trust, respect and the safety to make mistakes. Quite simply, connected teams work better together because they’re smarter together.

Science has confirmed for years that social connections matter, but we’ve ignored it. Sadly, even the Surgeon General hardly mentioned workplaces at all, devoting barely a page to a generic set of recommendations for employers.

At a time when we love to over-hype leaders but isolate members of their teams, we’re missing the blindingly obvious. As a species, the very thing that makes us special is our ability to learn and work together to solve problems and achieve greatness. We’ve disconnected from our evolutionary imperative and the Surgeon General’s report is the smoking gun. The real question is, will it be a call-to-arms to reconnect or will we ignore this too?

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