Everyone knows that we can prevent cardiovascular disease by eating well, quitting smoking, and exercising regularly. But another major factor in heart health is often overlooked: the quality of our social relationships.
The Swedish Survey of Living Conditions, which surveyed more than 17,000 people, found that those with fewest social contacts had a 50 percent higher risk for dying of cardiovascular disease. Socially isolated people are lonely—and loneliness increases stress, which can precipitate hypertension, chronic inflammation, and heart disease.
February is National Heart Month in Canada. Let's focus on the correlation between loneliness and health, and talk about the benefits of social interaction.
The Cost of Loneliness for Businesses
If employees are feeling lonely, isolated, or disconnected from others at work, there are serious consequences for their health—and for the entire company's health.
Unhappy employees often show increased absenteeism and decreased focus and engagement. They may also be more prone to developing chronic and serious illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease.
The ramifications for employers are significant. First, overall productivity often drops when employees are not cohesive and supportive of one another. Second, healthcare costs, including those for pricey prescription and biologic drugs, will skyrocket if stressed employees develop major illnesses.
The workplace is an ideal venue for social interaction. Coworkers see one another almost daily and real friendships can develop. Here are four simple actions you can take to encourage social interaction at work and boost employees’ health.
How to Prevent Isolation and Encourage Workplace Socializing
Discourage desk eating
A recent Dalhousie University survey found that almost 40% of Canadians eat lunch at their desks while simultaneously working. For many, eating through lunch is the only way to get everything done.
But eating in separate offices or cubicles can be isolating and prevent coworkers from getting to know one another. Also, research shows that people are more productive if they take breaks, rather than plowing through their work nonstop.
To reduce lunchtime isolation, employers can schedule set lunch hours and encourage employees not to eat at their desks.
Whether employees go out for lunch, or eat in the company lunch room, they’ll have a chance to disengage from work and bond with others. They’ll return refreshed, less stressed, and more productive.
Offer a fun and interactive workplace wellness program
Research from Brigham Young University showed loneliness and social isolation are as deadly as obesity, smoking, and lack of physical activity. A workplace wellness program is one of the best ways to improve physical health, and can address a variety of these risk factors in an accessible way.
Most wellness programs are team-based, which spurs an inclusive, united vibe. Sticking to challenging health goals is easier if done with others. In fact, health habits are also often contagious. So, employees who commit to a wellness program as a group are more likely to lose weight, quit smoking, and exercise regularly.
Further, by participating in the program together, employees share their life stories and ups and downs—and this mutual experience strengthens their connection with one another.
Employers can offer workshops on health topics, one-to-one consultations, or yoga classes. Other options include forming sports teams or organizing walking groups. The possibilities are endless!
Organize after-work social events to look forward toOften, people want to get to know their colleagues, but can't get around to it during work hours. Employers can step in and plan voluntary group activities.
For example, consider organizing monthly gatherings for drinks or dinner after work—or hold informal catered events on site. Ask employees about their hobbies and organize relevant groups, such as book clubs, knitting circles, or card games.
Work together to foster a collaborative environment
Many businesses instigate competition among employees, assuming that rivalries will produce better results. But a collaborative approach is actually much more effective.
If employees don’t trust their own colleagues, they will undermine one another—in-fighting, backstabbing, and withholding of new ideas. Ultimately such behavior only undermines their own performance—and health. Regarding teammates as unpredictable rivals produces an atmosphere of isolation and stress.
In contrast, collaboration promotes trust and a sense of purpose and belonging, which ultimately helps to reduce stress and its ill effects.
Bonus: a collaborative environment increases creativity, problem-solving, and sharing of ideas and resources.
Don't underestimate the importance of social relationships in the workplace. Help mitigate the risk of isolation by encouraging social interaction.
Schedule communal lunch breaks to give employees a chance to unplug from their work, eat, and socialize together. Organize after-work events to help foster deeper connections and friendships. Research the benefits of a workplace wellness program, and consider adding one to your employee benefits offering. Finally, emphasize the importance of collaboration over competition.
By creating convivial work environment, you will boost employees' happiness, engagement, and ultimately heart health. And healthy employees are one of the most important keys to a healthy business.