The Importance of social investment in creating a happy workplace

Sasha Hanau | 18th July 2016

I’ve been reading a fantastic book lately called The Happiness Advantage. If you haven’t already read it – I would highly recommend it. It’s focussed on dispelling the myth (despite what we are repeatedly told as children) that if we work hard, we will be successful and ultimately happy as a result. The book teaches that this principle is flawed. Instead, it rightly proves that happiness and a generally PMA (positive mental attitude) comes first, and success follows as a result. It makes a lot of sense.

One of its key learnings is about the importance of social investment – the influence social connections and interactions in our work and personal lives have on our overall happiness, health and contentment. It was such an interesting topic, I wanted to relay some of the findings in short here as I feel quite often we forget about the physical and mental impact our social habits have on our workplace success.

Social investment is always on the agenda

Team cohesion is a topic I’ve heard come up numerous times in the boardroom… How do we get the team to work together and integrate more? How can we improve communication between teams in order that our customers benefit? What level of investment should a company put in to social events for staff? When should we encourage chit-chat / when’s the right time to halt it? Etc. etc. The list is long. It’s a topic we probably all discuss in management meetings more than we even realise. And the answers to these questions make up the essence of our company culture and have more of an impact on our employee engagement and performance that we give credit for.

It’s not limited to HR discussions – a huge amount of time and effort goes into planning a client services strategy which, more often than not, involves as much time as possible being spent  socialising with clients!

But here’s why we need to consider social investment in our plans for business growth and sustained success…

Work recovery and workforce resilience

The fact is, the need for social bonds is evolutionary. The feeling you get after making a new connection or friend is a physical one – the pleasure-inducing chemical oxytocin is released. It’s the chemical also associated with reducing anxiety and improving concentration which is a big plus at work. In fact, there is a definitive all round physical response to socialising – it positively affects your cardiovascular, neuroendocrine and immune responses.

With the same logic: a distinct lack of social contacts can increase a person’s blood pressure significantly. In fact, University psychologist John Cacioppo found that a lack of social connections can be as deadly a factor in predicting life expectancy as certain diseases are! And this physical response doesn’t even factor in the impact a lack of social support would create in terms of one’s mental wellness. The fact is – social support strengthens us, and has ‘as much effect on life expectancy as smoking or obesity does’.

By encouraging the social lives of our colleagues at work (and at home) we can actively reduce the levels of stress hormone cortisol in the blood and help reduce the effect of workplace stress. From a business’ perspective it would serve us well to remember this the next time we decrease the social budget, cut Friday drinks after work or discourage our teams from taking regular ‘natter’ breaks by the water cooler. It’s likely to take a toll on our teams physically and mentally.

Social investment helps most in the toughest of times

In most instances, when we encounter a really tough challenge or threat in the business world we can be quick to isolate ourselves from our peers, family and friends. In the recession for example, businesses cut their social budgets, bankers in the financial crisis knuckled down, worked long hours and stopped their Friday pm drinking rituals. I think we have all been there, stressed out, under pressure and anxious, and as a result we’ve isolated ourselves, pulling back from our friends, colleagues and partners to work longer and harder.

The truth is however in any difficult time – whether it’s in a period of change, a downturn in performance or any other situation we cannot directly control, we need to pull together and hold on tight to our social investments. Why should we invest rather than divest in socialising? Because both mentally and physically, social investment has a massively positive impact on our performance and happiness.

The most successful, and the most resilient people are the ones who know when it’s time to be more social and they are proven to be more engaged, productive and valuable to your business long term. Having a community of people at work we trust and can rely on expands our ‘emotional, intellectual and physical resources’. Whether it’s a sudden jolt of positivity by catching up with a co-worker in the corridor, or a relationship built and strengthened over time, these daily interactions actually boost our happiness and wellbeing.

Highly connected staff members will be your happiest, most productive and most valuable!

Studies like ‘Very Happy People’ conducted by Diener and Seligman (and also research spanning over 70 years by Vaillant) looked at the common themes surrounding the happiest and most successful people. They all found the same thing – all shared one unique benefit: they have the strongest and most diverse social relationships/support. Whether this was looking at the general population, workforces or undergraduates at university – all research points to the same finding… social support networks are the single greatest predictor of happiness and long-term success. It’s such overwhelming evidence that for the geeks out there – the correlation between social support and happiness is 0.7 (anything over 0.3 is considered to be significant)!

Not only does social investment affect our happiness, but it is also predictive of long term professional achievement, career success and ultimately even income! Win, win for all parties. Your most social, well connected staff are likely to be your most valuable.

Social connections play a huge part in motivation

People work for people and the impact a manager and leadership team has on the engagement of the wider workforce is huge. After all, you spend more time at work with your colleagues than you do at home in general so the bonds you create at work are key. In Holahan & Sears’ study of successful professionals who were approaching retirement, they asked what motivated them the most, the results were overwhelming – ‘workplace friendships’ were placed well above financial gain or status. The most successful people generally work hard because they love what they do and more importantly – they love who they do it with.

If your teams are not cohesive then they are highly unlikely to be effective. The greatest predictor of a team’s success is how the members of the team feel about one another, so it’s no wonder companies like UPS, Google and IBM have all invested in social schemes to boost the productivity and engagement of their teams.

Positive social interactions are contagious

Our actions in the workplace have a much wider effect. Our positivity, openness and social attitudes spiral outwards, much like the butterfly effect – we have the ability to affect people not only working directly with us but way beyond this. Have you ever noticed that if you smile, people are more smiley toward you?  The nature of positivity means it radiates, with one small good deed (a supportive smile, a genuinely interested question to your colleague about their weekend etc.) all contributes to a wider effect that is spread across the team and company one person at a time. Happiness researcher Michelle Gielan said that when you “start a conversation with something positive and meaningful it will be matched in kind.” So start being more positive in your workplace socialising and you’ll soon see the benefits from your team.

Retain your social investment budget to ensure long-term company performance

With mental illness alone cited as the largest single cause of disability in the UK, and with it affecting nearly one in four adults, anything a company can do to help its staff be happier and healthier in the workplace seems like a good investment from the business’ perspective. As such, if you are ever tempted to reduce your spend on getting staff to socialise – don’t! Proper planning and investment in building your teams’ social connections and work-life balance will pay dividends in the long run.

“Just as social support is a prescription for happiness and an antidote to stress, it is also a prime contributor to achievement in the workplace”.

Shawn Achor.

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