How can HR support social connection when staff are socially isolating?

21 Apr 2020 By Susanne Jacobs

As businesses and employees navigate the uncertainties of the Covid-19 pandemic, they must remember to put inclusion first, says Susanne Jacobs

The current health crisis and the uncertainty it brings – from an individual level through to global economic insecurity – is fuelling behaviours both self-serving and of communal welfare. As we are told to ‘socially isolate’ or ‘socially distance’ ourselves, a grave concern has to be the impact of removing one of the most protective factors for us: others. I am not suggesting we do anything other than what we are advised and directed to do by those who know far more than me about containing and finally halting the spread of Covid-19, I simply want to raise the importance of social support, not just for today’s urgent situation but in relation to our wellbeing and performance at any time.

Humans are social creatures. Over our evolutionary journey we have survived and thrived because we have worked together for mutual protection and support – we are stronger together. Our ability to collaborate has allowed us to rise to the top of the evolutionary tree despite our relatively under-equipped physiques. From our brain’s perspective exclusion is a direct threat to our survival. The pain associated with a broken connection, which is registered in the same location of the brain as physical pain, can feel disastrous and have protracted long-term repercussions, with the memory of the experience etching itself onto our brain’s circuitry. When we think about that experience we risk opening up the wound and reliving the pain. I only have to ask you about not being invited to a party or an argument with a close friend and you can access those painful emotions. Whereas if I’d asked you to recall the last time you knocked your elbow, or bumped your head, assuming there was no significant trauma, you probably wouldn’t be able to remember. 

The survival advantage for connection is clear and is biologically hard-wired. We have developed aversive signals for the things we need, and that includes others. For example, hunger and thirst are aversive signals that trigger the motivation for action to find food and water. Likewise, the social pain of exclusion is an aversive signal to find and connect to others or mend broken bonds. Just witnessing the social rejection of another activates pain receptors signalling threat within the environment as our brains move into a social preservation mode. A lack of connection alters behaviour and is related to greater resistance to blood flow through the cardiovascular system. 

In times of crisis, selfish behaviours can manifest themselves. Just think stockpiling and empty shelves in the supermarkets. But human nature quickly turns to altruism. We start to look in on neighbours and the vulnerable. We start to promote a sharing and supportive community approach. As we give back, we are intrinsically rewarded. But what happens when, as we travel through these difficult times, we are unable to reach out and meet up because we have to distance and isolate ourselves? What is the longer-term effect of diluting at best and, at worst, for some, removing this vital need to connect?

Let’s move this to a business context. Inclusion is one of the seven drivers of intrinsic motivation. To belong and connect to a group is neurologically rewarding. When we connect the neurotransmitter oxytocin is released. It delivers a feel good sensation and strengthens our trust for others, positively impacting on our desire to collaborate. Focusing on inclusion is vital for developing a high-performing team. This might seem like an obvious statement, but in work environments where individualism and internal competition exists and/or is encouraged or reinforced through performance processes, it is likely that silos will be established, hindering overall performance by facilitating conflict between in group and out group, rather than connection. Similarly, as the technology allows us, and the current situation forces us, to work virtually and remotely, the task of supporting connection becomes harder. Leaders that can create and leverage the social networks of their teams will grow performance, creativity and collaboration. When we are really connected to our team mates we will work harder to support and contribute to the group. 

Businesses and communities only exist as a matrix of relationships – a system of connections. The lifeline is conversation and positive interaction through which ideas flow, tasks are completed and trust is established. The quality of those interactions is largely driven by each person’s perception of inclusion. We should think of our businesses not as transactional units but as a society formed of interdependent communities that identify and work together to build the whole. There are ways to construct the environment to mitigate the risk of negative bias, individualism and disconnection. And there are tools and techniques to cultivate inclusion that trigger intrinsic reward. As we navigate the uncertainty and worry over the coming months, we need to share the tools and knowledge and put inclusion at the heart.

Susanne Jacobs is an organisational engagement expert and author of Drivers

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