Blog Apr 07, 2021

Social Connections and Profitability


The Canadian Chamber of Commerce brings together a vast network of over 450 chambers of commerce and boards of trade and more than 200,000 businesses, from all regions and sectors of the economy. This network represents diverse viewpoints; the opinions expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.


By: Dr. Bill Howatt, President of Howatt HR, a Halifax Chamber member and author of The Cure for Loneliness

If you had a choice of a hug or a $100 bill in your last five minutes of life, what would you prefer? This may seem like a ridiculous question and you may think I am being a jerk for even making this comparison. Of course, the hug would be the obvious choice.

So, I have a question. Why does it seem like many employers put more emphasis on money than the quality of their employees’ experience, which includes the quality of their social connections in the workplace?

Maximizing and sustaining the profitability of any business must happen through its people. Owners who want to be successful know this. However, day-to-day reality often trumps good intentions because of what they face to keep the doors open. As well, they may not be aware or clear on how they can help employees close social connection gaps in the workplace.

What do you think motivates most employees: how much money the business has generated this month or the degree they feel psychologically safe and socially connected in the workplace?

One silver lining from the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has shone a light on the importance of the quality of social connections for predicting employees’ productivity and mental health. My applied research in partnership with The Globe and Mail and Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS) has found employees who experience higher perceived isolation and loneliness are less productive and cost employers more money.

When it comes to employees’ quality of authentic social connections, it is not always obvious to onlookers who may have a gap. For example, many people are in marriages that appear happy but one or both partners are lonely. The same thing can happen in the workplace. An employee can appear fine at a team meeting but not like anyone they work with or have any personal social connections.

Business Owners Can Help Employees Close Social Connections Gaps

My motivation for this blog is to encourage business owners to pause and consider their role in supporting employees to develop safe and positive social connections in the workplace.

  • Reflect and accept. Here is the deal: humans need hugs. To be current with socially acceptable norms in the workplace, humans need humans to feel safe. Accept that every employee has a desire for safe social connections—a need deeply wired in their DNA. The absence of meaningful social connections in the workplace hurts. Not feeling connected at work creates isolation, and working remotely can lead to even more employees feeling isolated. The emotion attached to not feeling socially connected in the workplace is loneliness, with its associated risk factors such as premature death. Though loneliness is not a clinical mental illness, it is perhaps one of the biggest social problems in Canada that we are not talking about enough.
  • Care. Business owners do not need to be psychologists, just open to the possibility that not all employees are having meaningful and safe social connections in the workplace and their personal lives. Employers establish employee and family assistance programs (EFAP) to help employees cope with life challenges. They can also engage employees early in the discussion of how much quality social connections matter. Notice I am not talking about teams. Within every team there are social connections and what helps team members show up is having one or two quality and safe social connections where they can feel vulnerable and share without fear of being judged. Humans are not machines. We are emotional creatures that thrive when we feel valued, wanted and accepted. One key for inclusion in the workplace is helping all employees feel welcomed and safe. Meaningful social connections help insulate from exclusion.
  • Intention. If you want to be physically fit, you need to do something with intention—thinking about it does little good. Helping employees build meaningful social connections in the workplace requires being open to talking about it. In research I led with the Conference Board of Canada and WSPS, we found that a core pillar of a psychologically safe workplace is the quality of employees’ social connections.

Three-step action plan to facilitate social connections

  1. Train leaders. Introduce leaders to micro-training that can help them become psychologically safe leaders. The manager-employee relationship is a critical social connection for employees to feel connected.
  2. Train employees. Through short educational sessions (e.g., webinar) assist employees to understand the link between mental health and social connections. A short webinar can provide context and a frame of reference.
  3. Provide social connections tools. One reason some employees may not have social connections is mental blocks that prevent them from believing and trying. Provide self-paced programs that can reduce their risk of isolation and loneliness. The Cure for Loneliness provides a path to move away from loneliness and close social connections gaps. The Hugr Authentic Connections app—available to all Chambers of Commerce Group Insurance Plan members and shaped through a combination of lived experience and The Cure for Loneliness content—can facilitate an employee’s journey.