What is social wellbeing and why should employers care?

As the employee wellbeing conversation amps up among HR teams, the aspect of social wellbeing is cropping up more and more. Now, social wellbeing is moving beyond a buzzword or trend, into an equally-important pillar of wellbeing – alongside mental, physical and financial wellness. But what is it?

What is ‘social wellbeing’?

While mental, physical, and financial wellbeing are fairly self-explanatory, the newly-coined ‘social wellbeing’ is more complex.

Generally speaking, social wellbeing is the extent to which you feel a sense of belonging, social inclusion and social stability – it encompasses our lifestyles, values and beliefs.

When it comes to the workplace, we can apply social wellbeing to:

  • Relationships with colleagues, managers and wider social security
  • Company values and corporate social responsibility
  • Social inclusion and a sense of belonging
  • Feeling valued as a person, colleague and employee

Just as mental wellbeing can be divided into mental health versus general mental ‘wellness’, and physical wellbeing covers both illness and fitness, social wellbeing can be divided into an employee’s socialisation and relationships, as well as wider organisation-led initiatives (like CSR or company culture). It is here that social wellbeing intersects with mental wellbeing and wider aspects of employee experience – such as workplace culture – arguably more than any other area of wellbeing.

Why does social wellbeing matter to organisations?

We all know that happier employees result in happier customers: happier employees also equal higher productivity, and improved retention – all leading to a more successful and efficient business.

Each area of employee wellbeing affects each area of the employee experience in its own way, and social wellbeing is no exception: an employee who feels valued by their organisation will be more driven and conscientious, as they want to prove their worth and maintain that feeling of being valued. An employee with positive co-worker relationships will be happier at work, thus providing better customer experiences. An employee who believes in their company’s values and CSR initiatives will be personally invested in the business’ success, so they will work harder. And an employee who feels like they belong will be more loyal, and ergo stay at the business for longer.

How do we get there?

These are scenarios we all see at work every day. We all understand and believe in the power of building a positive social environment and culture at work – but implementing the changes needed to improve social wellbeing is harder than simply recognising its impact (although, that is a good first step).

Firstly, you must be aware of different employees’ different needs – for example, remote workers won’t have the same social wellbeing requirements as office-based employees; introverted or neurodivergent employees may also have different social needs. (Watch this space for more in-depth analysis of diversity’s impact on loneliness and social wellbeing.)

Once you have a clear idea of your workforce’s different intersections, you can begin to assess their needs – what are your employees lacking, or struggling with? Perhaps your sector demands lots of travel and remote work, or maybe you require staff to work long hours and night shifts. How can you ensure these things don’t negatively affect social wellbeing?

You should also consider what your organisation already does well. You may have a great CSR initiative that gets people out volunteering, building relationships with teammates and giving back to the local community. Or maybe you offer generous holiday allowances, or have flexible working and parental leave policies so employees can bring their whole selves to work.

Promote these existing elements, ask your employees what they like about them. Analyse what your employees are struggling with, where you’re already helping them, and how you can build on that success to help in other ways.

The quick wins

If you’re looking to begin boosting social wellbeing, then look to minor tweaks you can make, perks you can offer, then new policies to enact. While a handful of nice-to-haves can’t replace a full social wellbeing strategy (just as offering a gym membership benefit doesn’t substitute a full physical wellbeing scheme), you can use these as a springboard for wider improvements and conversations about social wellbeing. Here are some places to start:

  • Consider your flexible working, parental and annual leave policies – do they allow for a balance of home and work responsibilities? Do they encourage downtime and room for people to relax, enjoy hobbies and pursue extra-curricular activities?
  • Allow employees to express themselves – this could be through casual clothes and ‘decorate-your-desk’ policies. For workplaces where that wouldn’t be applicable or appropriate, look at other ways for employees to show their individuality, like customised name badges or personalised profiles on the intranet.
  • Acknowledge and celebrate your organisation’s diversity – try running an internal campaign to celebrate your organisation’s diversity, support a local charity or event, or raise awareness of different communities.
  • Assess your social events – set up a variety of social events that take into account different employees’ home lives, responsibilities, budget and social comfort. Things like a lunchtime quiz vs. an evening meal at the pub attract very different people. You should have something for everyone.
  • Evaluate your support processes – develop policies and processes that allow employees to feel comforted at work, and use it as an escape from home-life pressures or difficulties, rather than an added stress.
  • Build out or promote existing CSR initiatives – investing time or money into CSR builds your brand, broadens your community, and strengthens your culture. Not to mention, it will win you customers, employee loyalty and future talent!

Don’t get left behind

Social wellbeing is nothing new – employers are already tackling it in many ways, it’s now time to take these efforts from subconscious to conscious. Turn disparate elements of your culture into a cohesive wellbeing strategy, which will in turn boost recruitment, retention, engagement and productivity. Even the small things you’re already doing may be the difference between keeping a strong employee and losing one…

Once you consciously acknowledge the meaning of social wellbeing (and its inherent importance in the workplace), you can actively build out your scheme – and join the dots between mental, financial and physical wellbeing.

With panic surrounding the climate crisis, a broader social conscience coming into play, and ‘belonging’ becoming more prominent in the workplace, employers need to demonstrate their human side more than ever. Social wellbeing is only going to get bigger: you can’t afford to risk falling behind.