Much has been written about America’s loneliness epidemic, including in the workplace. The word “loneliness” in the work context is a misnomer. It doesn’t capture the whole story. And what about the individuals who might not think of themselves as lonely and how the demands of work and task-oriented activities, such as time in front of screens, have crowded out time for anything more than superficial relationships? Many people lack sufficient positive human connection (or social connection) and might be unaware of the ramifications. Left unchecked, the deficiency of connection presents widespread risks to individuals and organizations.
Social connection is a primal human need. Its presence appears to improve the cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune systems’ performance. In contrast, studies have shown that disconnection is unhealthy for individuals. Consider that:
- Loneliness is associated with poorer cognitive performance, including executive function and social cognition.
- Loneliness may impair executive control and self-regulation, including with respect to greater smoking and alcohol consumption.
- Social disconnectedness is related to lower levels of self-rated physical health.
- Loneliness is associated with substance abuse, depressive symptoms, and suicidal ideation.
Prevalence of Social DisconnectionA considerable amount of evidence suggests that social disconnection is prevalent today. Cigna reported data in 2018 that chronic loneliness in America had reached epidemic levels, which is consistent with an earlier analysis on the potential public health relevance of social isolation and loneliness.
It would appear that over the next decade the workforce may become even more disconnected. Since 2011, research on adolescents has found they spend more time interacting with electronic devices than with each other while also experiencing declining well-being. As artificial intelligence further increases the presence and role of machines in people’s lives, people’s ability to connect may diminish.
The Role of Chronic StressWhy is social disconnection problematic in the workplace? Stress is a primary factor. While it is a term we often hear, it is difficult to fully comprehend the far-reaching psychological and physiological consequences associated with it.
In measured amounts, stress serves to ready the nervous system for the task at hand and can be a good thing. However, as Ted George, a physician with the National Institutes of Health describes in his book Untangling the Mind, stress can also have negative effects. With increasing levels of stress, the nervous system processes the stress as a threat; and in extreme circumstances, stress moves the individual from being guided by rational thought processes to the instinctual responses characterized as “fight,” “flight,” and “shutdown.”
One of the best-known means to cope with stress is to increase positive social connections. Being in an environment that fosters supportive relationships and human connection serves to stabilize the responses of the nervous system, preventing it from processing the stressor as a threat.
Cultures of ConnectionUniversity of California, Los Angeles neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman describes social connection as a “superpower” that makes individuals smarter, happier, and more productive. Leaders at all levels of an organization would be wise to assess workplace culture through the lens of connection. Are attitudes, uses of language, and behaviors drawing people together and connecting them? Or are they creating a stressful or relationally-toxic environment that pushes people apart?
In our research, we found that cultures of connection are best for individual well-being and for helping organizations thrive. Specifically, cultures of connection convey several performance advantages upon organizations, including higher employee engagement, tighter strategic alignment, superior decision-making, greater innovation, and more adaptability to cope with rapid change. These advantages add up to a powerful competitive advantage.
World’s Best Hospital Has Connection in Its DNAThe power of connection is on full display at Mayo Clinic, America’s top-ranked hospital and arguably the best hospital in the world. From the time of its founding in 1889, Mayo Clinic has been intentional about cultivating connection and community. Dr. Charlie Mayo, one of the earliest leaders, communicated an attitude that valued connection and warned about the dangers of isolation when he stated, “Our failures as a profession are the failures of individualism, the result of competitive medicine. It must be done by collective effort.”
Mayo Clinic’s stated mission and values point to being guided by the intent of its founders, the original Mayo physicians and Sisters of St. Francis. Mayo Clinic’s mission is “To inspire hope and contribute to health and well-being by providing the best care to every patient through integrated clinical practice, education and research” (italics mine). The language used to describe its values includes such words and phrases as sensitivity, empathy, treating the whole person (including emotional and spiritual needs), teamwork, blending skills of the team, unsurpassed collaboration, each employee and every team member.
Mayo Clinic’s belief in the importance of connection goes beyond attitudes and language to practical steps taken to see that connection is infused in the culture. The clinic's onboarding process for physicians and scientists includes extensive training in professionalism and communications and assessments to help them develop emotional intelligence. Physician leaders are selected, developed, and assessed based on their ability to connect, which includes listening, engaging, and developing and leading other physicians. Informal opportunities for connection among colleagues are encouraged through dedicated meeting areas where physicians can gather.
Mayo Clinic’s intentionality and commitment is evident in a program called COMPASS (Colleagues Meeting to Promote and Sustain Satisfaction). Under this initiative, self-formed groups of six to 10 physicians get together to discuss assigned issues related to the physician experience, such as resiliency, medical mistakes, work-life balance and meaning at work. Mayo Clinic’s research has found that participants in COMPASS experience statistically significant improvements in multiple domains of well-being and satisfaction that will help reduce the risk of physician burnout and reduce medical errors.
ConclusionFor-profit organizations can develop cultures of connection too. Consider the connection culture of Costco, which Forbes and Statista research has consistently recognized as among the best large company employers in America, or the connection culture Alan Mulally cultivated when he led the turnaround of Ford Motor Company.
Our current epidemic of social disconnection has arisen from multiple avenues including loneliness, social isolation, and the busyness and increased screen time of modern life crowding out time for face-to-face human connection. Social disconnection is making people more vulnerable to the negative effects of stress, and its prevalence and effects present a systemic risk to organizations.
Connection matters. Organizations should be intentional about developing and sustaining cultures of connection that provide the structures and needed psychosocial support to foster inclusion and teamwork, minimize stress, and reduce error. Superior organizational outcomes as well as better employee and organizational health, resilience, and performance will result from such a focus.
Want to learn more? Join me at ATD 2020 International Conference & EXPO for the session, "Building a Workplace Culture of Connection." Or check out my book Connection Culture; preorder for the second edition will be available March 23, 2020.