Want Healthier Workers? Build Better Social Networks

August 1, 2012 Darcy Jacobsen

If we could cure the common cold, do you know how much money you’d save in absenteeism? A boatload. In a 2002 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, researchers reported that “each cold experienced by a working adult caused an average of 8.7 lost work hours (2.8 absenteeism hours; 5.9 hours of on-the-job loss).” The study concluded that the common cold  costs companies nearly $25 billion annually.

If we could cure stress, do you know how much money you’d save? Well, a 2000 study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion shows that in only six large U.S. companies, stress accounted for $6.2 billion in health insurance costs. When adding into account absenteeism and presenteeism, one study found that the total cost to Canadian industry was $35 billion annually. And depending how you crunch the numbers, experts estimate that the total cost in the U.S. is somewhere between $150- $300 billion.

Before you get too excited about saving these billions, I’m not saying that social networks can cure either stress or the common cold! But a growing body of research is finding that participation in social networks or communities DOES have a significant protective effect on workers’ health and well-being, especially when it comes to stress.

To be clear, when we talk about social networks at work, we’re not talking about Facebook or Twitter use— but rather connecting with co-workers in a meaningful way: such as sharing experiences or offering support, appreciation and recognition.

Consider this selection of studies:

In this study of Swedish adolescents, individuals with lower social interaction and lower social trust had “more than three times increased odds of being depressed, three times increased odds of having many psychosomatic symptoms, and double the odds of having many symptoms of musculoskeletal pain.”

A similar study in Finland found that male employees in work units characterized by low workplace social capital were 40-60% more likely to develop chronic hypertension compared with men in work units with high social capital.

Studies as far back as the 1970s have proven that strong social networks at work provide a buffering effect for mental and physical health variables such as anxiety, depression, irritation and psychosomatic symptoms.

Researchers at MIT found that “individuals are more likely to acquire new health practices while living in social networks with dense clusters of connections (when in close contact with people they already know well).”

A Brigham Young Study from 2010 showed that that “those with poor social connections had on average 50% higher odds of death in the study’s follow-up period (an average of 7.5 years) than people with more robust social ties.”

The takeaway is this: connecting your employees and strengthening their relationships makes your workforce healthier. Why? Because workplace social connections are rich in emotional support, social trust, and information. They become not only source of contentment and relief from stress, but they also trigger positive behavioral changes and help workers achieve their health goals.

Encouraging social engagement in your company may not cure the sniffles, but it will most likely increase productivity, elevate engagement, and—yes—save you a boatload of money.

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