Do we need solutions that enhance social connections?

Eugene McGarrell, General Manager, Health and Community Engagement, discusses the role social connections plays in health, wellbeing and return to work outcomes.

Woman talking to coworkers in a meeting

Autumn is nearly upon us. With a change in season, it could be the right time to re-evaluate the strength of our social connections and networks at home and at work.  We all need connection. Isolation and loneliness can lead to depression, whilst feeling connected allows us to feel a sense of belonging. Is this the time to review your relationships and strengthen them?

We all know that diet and exercise is important for a long and healthy life, and whilst we pay attention to the number of fruits and vegetable we eat every day, do we pay attention to the quality and value of the connections we have?

Social support, community connections and networks build social capital and is a factor linked to positive physical health outcomes. There is a great deal of research showing people with low social support are at a much higher risk of death from a variety of diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease, while people with higher social support have an increased likelihood of survival.

So what exactly is social capital? American political scientist Robert Putman describes social capital as a resource that is present within all communities, it is formed when networks and relationships among people who live or work together bond through common interests that support them as a community.

Social capital is one of the most important factors for a human’s health and wellbeing. Without it we risk isolation, loneliness and depression.

From social capital grows Putnam’s notion of social trust in which in the community can be nurtured through barbecues and morning teas.

Putnam goes on to say that when an organisation has common goals and outcomes they can build social bonds through the social trust that is formed. From an economic perspective, we all benefit from this type of social capital through developing a sense of trust that gives people a greater inclination to do things for each other.

Here at icare our focus is on injured workers and their return to work. The workplace is an essential source of social capital for many people; it provides mutual support and gives us meaning to life. Working helps us create our sense of purpose and belonging and our colleagues are often our social connections. Importantly these connections support our mental health and wellbeing.

The research shows, and we know anecdotally, that people with higher social connection return to work sooner. Support from family, friends, co-workers, and employers can be critical. Conversely, isolation following an injury at work disrupts these connections, reducing a person’s sense of self-worth and value. We need to find ways of maintaining connection between these people, their work and their colleagues even if they are unable to return to work full time.

In 2018, Health and Community Engagement (HACE) will be exploring the role of social connections further through our community engagement and research. If you would like to learn more about this work or our research, please contact hace@icare.nsw.gov.au