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Going the social distance: How to maintain Social Health during life in lockdown

In part one of this post I talked about the idea of Social Health and the renewed relevance given to it by current events. I took a look at the WHO’s original 1947 definition and found that it was surprisingly ‘en point’ when it comes to thinking about the challenges to our health, social and otherwise, presented by the Coronavirus pandemic. I was left in no doubt that all three elements of Social Health covered by the WHO definition (social adjustment, social support and the ability to play our ‘normal’ roles in society) are being profoundly challenged by current events.

In this post I want to look more specifically at how Social Health plays out in the workplace… and how that’s likely to be compromised right now. Of course, the idea of Social Health (the one the WHO refers to) starts in society, but it comes together with work because many people spend much of their time working. The role we play at work and the relationships that are central to that role become, over time, an important aspect of our identity. Think about how you felt when you’ve left a job you held for many years, for whatever reason: perhaps there was a sense of liberation on the first day after you left, but it’s also likely that you felt like you were leaving a part of yourself behind.

In this sense, it’s quite common for work friendships not to survive one friend leaving the business. That’s largely because the context for the relationship is no longer there, but this is not to devalue work relationships: while they endure, they are a hugely important source of inspiration, strength and support for employees everywhere.

Of course, the current situation is presenting a very different kind of challenge for Social Health and work relationships. Inside any given business, some people are still working but in a much-changed context, while others will be furloughed but not gone and some will have been made redundant. At the same time, the normal social milieu for building and maintaining work relationships for so many, the office, has just disappeared overnight as we all adapt to working for home via various forms tech for an indefinite period.

With this in mind, on behalf of our clients I wanted to look more closely at the levers we can pull to ensure and enhance Social Health at work, so I asked Robertson Cooper’s Founding Director, Professor Ivan Robertson to do a literature review in order to identify its key components. He very helpfully (and quickly!) came back with five aspects of working life that I think deserve some focus at this very unique moment.

Below I’ve organised them to show their definition, the risks or challenges presented by the pandemic to each one and then we’ve designed this up to be a tool so you can think about how you might mitigate these risks to your own Social Health, which you can find below.

Building and maintaining high quality relationships with others

The social context of the office has disappeared in many cases; colleagues upon whom you rely for support are furloughed or have been made redundant and there are high levels of uncertainty everywhere. Building high quality relationships is therefore much harder.

Adapting behaviour in response to changing circumstances

The business context for workplace behaviour has changed altogether, the location has most likely changed and many roles have changed. You may not feel able to adapt, even if you know you have to.

Feeling like you can fulfil your social role and obligations to others

Roles and the workplace context have shifted, clarity about your social role and obligations may now be in short supply. Lack of face-to-face support may make it difficult to understand your work colleagues’ changing needs as the crisis develops.

Resilient employees who can retain their behavioural focus

Employee resilience has been sternly tested since the start of the pandemic, people everywhere have drawn down on their reserves of resilience and stood up to be counted… but what’s left at this point? When you look around you at your colleagues do you see people who are resilient enough to sustain their social health and help others with theirs?

Work policies, practices and culture giving people the required control, resources and support

Your employer may have adapted very well to the pandemic and its implications... Or it may not have. Do you feel in-control of your productivity? Has your employer doubled down on the resources and support you need to thrive... or cut it back? In that context, are their expectations of you realistic?

These components now give a true dive into the challenges we face when it comes to the Social Health of ourselves and colleagues, and the issue goes way beyond the ‘tips for working from home’ checklists we have seen a lot of in recent weeks.

There are undoubtedly no easy answers for ensuring true Social Health in these difficult times. As Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Oxford University has said recently a ‘pixelated version’ of spending time with a friend ‘merely slows down the rate of decay’ of the relationship. That is to say, technology helps but is no replacement for face-to-face relationships in real time and space.

We all have our own unique challenges stemming from the combination of how our work and home life respectively have been changed by what’s happened so far. The five areas outlined above at least indicate some of the levers we have to consider in order to have a positive impact on the state of our Social Health as things unfold further.

None of us know what is to come, but it is clear that elements of lockdown and social distance will be with us for some time and that means we’ll have to think, and work, harder to secure any sense of Social Health. And we should be in no doubt about the crucial role Social Health can play in minimising the negative impact of the pandemic on mental health and wellbeing as we approach the next stage of this crisis.

Research by the aforementioned Professor Dunbar has shown that having supportive people in your network makes you more resilient and resistant to stress, reducing blood pressure and heart rate spikes. These outcomes have never been more important than they are right now.


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