Happier holidays: Promoting connections pays off

Sarah Johnson
Sarah Johnson

The month of December can seem like a hole in the workplace calendar. Standing meetings are canceled and colleagues are out of the office. Unless you’re in the retail or restaurant business, productivity is likely to take a dip. But those same challenges of absenteeism and diminished productivity also could be indicators of loneliness and social disconnection — both more common than you think.

In a recent survey of 20,000 adults commissioned by insurance giant Cigna, nearly half of adults reported sometimes or always feeling alone or left out, and 53 percent said they lack meaningful interactions during the day.

The holiday season can be a difficult season for people who struggle with loneliness and depression, feelings that affect their work. Employees who are lonely are more likely to quit, perform less well and feel less satisfied with their jobs, according to a Harvard Business Review article published earlier this year.

One way employers can help diminish loneliness at work — and boost their bottom line — is to think of the workplace as a community where activities that build connections are encouraged. The benefits are clear. Employees with good social connections at work tend to be not only more loyal, but also more engaged. They experience lower levels of stress and better health, both of which are associated with better performance.

Walking groups and other wellness program options get employees outside and moving. There’s also the added social benefit of encouraging interaction between people who might not otherwise connect. As you plan health-promoting activities, keep in mind wellness is not just about exercise. Loneliness is associated with poor health — including increased risk for high blood pressure, metastatic cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, conditions that can have as much of an effect as smoking and obesity. Social gatherings aren’t just fun. They help keep your employees healthy.

Volunteering with co-workers offers another way to strengthen ties among employees. Encourage teams to volunteer together, even during work time. Your company gets to be a good community partner while your staff builds team spirit, reduces stress and develops community outreach skills.

Celebrations also build community in the work place. Think beyond the holiday party and birthday cake. Plan such other celebrations as a baby shower, seasonal potluck or team lunch when the company achieves a goal.

If your workplace culture has been one in which business hours are for work and personal relationships are off the clock, this concept could require a bit of a paradigm shift. Don’t think, though, you have to create a tech startup style work environment of beanbag chairs, unlimited snacks and video games in the break room to build strong social connections. Some of the most powerful ways to build relationships and encourage interaction can be directly related to your business practices and professional development plans.

A mentoring program or coaching relationship, for example, can help new and veteran employees navigate your workplace culture and gain a sense of belonging within the organization. Similarly, framing the work in terms of the company’s mission and what makes it meaningful to employees helps create cohesiveness and a shared sense of purpose.

Look for opportunities to ask employees at different levels for their opinions on an issue or a challenge. Seeking input from all team members sends the message diverse perspectives in the organization are valued and builds confidence in employees who might not typically speak up.

Don’t discount the value of brief, casual interactions, either. Water cooler talk, one-on-one or group coffee breaks (even off-site) and chatting in the hall provide employees with important opportunities for making connections throughout the day. Make time for quick, but frequent, meetings with individual staff members and let them know when you’ve noticed their good work. Even a small thank you can go a long way.

As more research emerges about the prevalence and effects of loneliness, employers have an opportunity to consider how they can support a healthy, productive work force through connections and relationships. Given these changes could involve cake and a coffee break, the shift is likely to be welcomed rather than resisted.