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Let’s be more intentional about building flourishing work communities as an on-ramp for building a better society

28th January 2022

Author: Heloisa Jardim, MBA, MPH , Research Manager, SHINE | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

We know that the quality of our relationships is a strong predictor of our happiness. The Harvard Adult Development[1] study is one of the longest studies in the world and has been examining participants’ health for more than 80 years. Importantly, it found that the quality of our social community is associated with positive health outcomes[2]/.

When we think about social community, we don’t often consider the impact of the space or place where we spend the majority of time in adulthood, i.e., the work community. We might perceive our work lives as a source of income and maybe purpose, but still separate from or not fully integrated into our life and personal goals.

Sometimes, and to the deference of our own thriving as individuals, the ultimate goal of our success at work is judged according to maximising productivity. The focus goes to getting more things done with insufficient attention on the quality of how we do things. But, to get things done, we need to work with others. So, focusing on the quality of how we relate to others is important to being effective at work and to our health and well-being.

Our social connections are essential to our thriving

At Harvard’s SHINE[3], we have been studying what drives people’s well-being and performance at work. Over the past six years, we’ve surveyed over 60,000 people worldwide and found that individuals find more social connection from work than they do from outside of work[4]. This shows just how powerful it can be to focus on the quality of our relationships at work for our overall sense of well-being. In fact, preliminary findings from one of our studies in 2020, with approximately 7,000 participants worldwide, found[5] that individuals with a sense of belonging at work are:

  • 1.5 times more productive and engaged in their jobs
  • 2.2 times more satisfied with their work
  • 1.4 times more socially connected overall in life
  • 1.6 higher rating of mental well-being than those who don’t feel the same sense of connection.

Moving mainstream

Our understanding of the power of social connections is deepening. The annual conference of the American Public Health Association in October 2021 chose social connection as its theme, ‘Creating the Healthiest Nation – Strengthening Social Connection. Furthermore, with the emergence of the ‘metaverse’[6] movement, the concern for strengthening human connection has become increasingly vital to sustaining our well-being.

A closer look into social connection

As a researcher, I like to ask lots of questions and dig deep into the meaning of things. In this sense, I want to explore the components of social connection and belonging. When people are not socially connected, they are lonely. Jeremy Nobel’s framework for loneliness[7] defines three levels of loneliness:

  1. Interpersonal (the quality of relationships),
  2. Existential (the meaning individuals get in life)
  3. Societal (feeling part of the bigger community).

I used this framework to look into what is might take to not feel lonely, namely ‘belongingness’. Using the three-level framework, I investigated how people in our 2020 study experienced belongingness through their work. That is,

  • Interpersonal (strong relationships at work);
  • Existential (meaningful job), and s
  • Societal (no harassment or discrimination at work).

I compared those who did feel a sense of belongingness at work, according to these three levels, with those who did not. What I found was that those who experience belonging at work fair much better in terms of life satisfaction, mental health, and overall social connection[8]. Furthermore, all three levels of belongingness were associated with higher levels of engagement a work and job satisfaction.

Use the wisdom

So, before investing in the next super cool artificial intelligence tool to become more productive, we use these research insights to our advantage. For example, be thoughtful about the ways in which team members are finding more meaning in their daily connections. As a result, your business or organisation can flourish and the people that drive the results should be happier and healthier.