Stay-at-home orders, social distancing, economic uncertainty, unrest and division, isolation and frustration—with so much pulling us apart, it might seem like the gaps opening up right now are getting too wide to cross.
When this happens, employee health can suffer, mentally and physically. According to the Wellness Council of America, the effects of social disconnection and stress challenge our innate survival need for belonging. That drains our superpowers of feeling connected, community-oriented, and collaborative—all feelings that lead to happier, healthier, and more productive employees.
The Society for Human Resources Management reports that COVID-19 is creating a ripple effect of loneliness for millions of people, in every sector of the workforce. Numerous studies have linked loneliness to increased prevalence of health issues and chronic conditions, and it’s even considered a risk factor for earlier mortality.
Fortunately, we have the bridge-building materials right in front of us for social connection.
Plugging into communities for social connection
Technology is proving to be a powerful way to foster and maintain connections.
An analysis by The New York Times of U.S. Internet usage in early April found that the rise of social distancing brought a huge spike in using online tools to talk to one another. From Zoom parties and Google Hangouts to social media and video calls, tech is leading the way in making people feel less alone. Plus, with people staying at home, accessing healthcare through digital connections, such as telemedicine, has become the “new normal.”
Online communities, especially, have become vital tools, and that’s a boon to health, since socially connected people tend to have lower blood pressure and improved immune function, among other health benefits. Social connections can also generate physical and psychological advantages that boost the quality and length of someone’s life.
In fact, the availability of a more extensive, potentially broader social network through the Internet may provide better-matched and more sustained support than “offline” networks, particularly for those who feel they lack support among family, friends, or colleagues.
For those who choose to connect with others in online social networks, the richness and personalization of the information shared can be powerful drivers of healthy behavior and better health.
Online community for tobacco cessation
A top example of how high-quality online communities can kickstart and sustain engagement in employee health is the EX Community. Over the past 10 years, this robust, award-winning online community of current and former tobacco users has been key for successful quits, even for those who’d had many failed attempts before joining.
Research shows people who participate are more likely to quit, but even those who are “lurking” can benefit. Community members don’t just offer advice and support—although that’s crucial—they also share their lives and interests, their struggles and victories, and that creates a deep sense of togetherness.
For instance, EX Community member TriGirl recently wrote about her one-year, smoke-free milestone, but she also talked about distance learning at school, making masks for a local nonprofit, putting irrigation into her home garden, and participating in virtual run challenges.
“Quarantine does not have me thinking about smoking,” she wrote, “Well, maybe the occasional stressful moment…but I realize I have a MILLION other choices of things to do besides smoke. I won’t be giving in. I won’t be giving up. I’ve built a life I have no need to escape from—actually, I had it all along. I just couldn’t see it through the clouds of smoke.”
The flood of congratulatory replies she received is typical of the EX Community, and the bonds they create hold each other up. Here’s how that translates to healthy behavior for everyone who participates or observes these exchanges:
- Online social networks provide easy, around-the-clock access to hundreds if not thousands of “expert” peers – such as those further ahead on the quitting journey, those who have relapsed before and gotten back on the wagon, those who have experienced the same struggles or triggers. These peers can provide firsthand experience about what might happen and how things feel to demystify and “de-awfulize” quitting in easy-to-understand ways. In the EX Community, one of the most widely read posts is titled “What To Expect In the First Four Months.”
- Online social networks transcend geography to provide access to a national network of people taking the same medication, navigating the same difficult behavior change, or coping with the same chronic condition. Access to this extended network helps members overcome feelings of isolation and stigma.
- The availability of a larger, more diverse social network through the Internet may provide better-matched and more sustained support than “offline” networks. A spouse, friends, or family members may become burned out over time in providing support. The change, flux, and persistence of long-term members in online communities means there is always someone available for support.
The EX Community is a strong example of how thriving online social communities can power individual behavior change by providing the support people need to get on (and stay on) a different, healthier track.
Even in the midst of all that’s going on in the world, with people physically separated from one another and uncertainty about what’s ahead, we can stay connected through online communities like these. We can bridge those gaps separating us and embrace being together and supported.
Want to learn more? Download “The X Factor for Total Wellbeing (and Social Connectedness).” Or visit our program page to learn more about our community and how it works within the EX Program to help tobacco users quit for good.