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Truth or exaggeration – does social media affect your employees’ health and productivity?

September 19, 2017

In HR or management roles there is a point to every action taken. The objective of the human resource professional is to ensure a workforce is able to perform to the best of its collective ability.

So where does social media usage at work fit into all this?

It’s a huge topic, and to discuss every element would take several books. In fact, even when reviewing academic studies into the subject, it’s somewhat alarming to read again and again that much more work is still required into this area before decisive claims can be made.

Today, it’s certainly common to include brief references to social media usage in employee handbooks – usually connected with portrayal of the company – but less about individual usage and its impact on productivity, engagement and performance.

Making that jump is not easy, so the first step is to look at how social media affects overall health, then from there try to understand any impact on productivity. 

Your workforce on social media

It is now more widely accepted that anxiety, depression and mental health in general are important health factors that can damage the productivity of a workforce, but where does social media usage play a role?

It is now more widely accepted that anxiety, depression and mental health in general are important health factors that can damage the productivity of a workforce, but where does social media usage play a role?

One of the main appeals of social media is staying in touch with relatives, friends and other loved ones. On the surface, platforms such as Facebook appear to keep us really well connected with those important to us. But what about the side effects to having a near-constant stream of (apparently) happy moments from the lives of those in your social network? One study aptly titled Seeing Everyone Else’s Highlight Reels noted that ‘people feel depressed after spending a great deal of time on Facebook because they feel badly when comparing themselves to others.’

What’s perhaps even more intriguing is that this study found that the link between depression and the self-comparison was not simple. It would be fair to assume that only comparing oneself unfavourably to content seen on social media would lead to an increase in depression, yet it was found that both ‘upward, downward and nondirectional’ comparisons all mediated the connection between the amount of time spent on Facebook and symptoms of depression.

As well as depression, this distorted view of the social lives of those around us can lead to anxiety. In a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders, it was shown that ‘more social media usage is linked to greater odds of having a diagnosed anxiety disorder.’

So let’s make that link, which is that all of these social media-related factors could potentially lead to presenteeism – an employee being at work but due to ill health (emotional health in this case) not performing at their best. So it seems social media does negatively impact productivity.

Or does it?

Can social media boost productivity?

It is important to note that social media usage in and of itself is not linked across the board with decreased productivity, even when that usage is during work hours. In fact, ‘overall, the evidence suggests that social media use at work may not necessarily lead to negative job-related outcomes’, according to a study titled Effects of support and job demands on social media use and work outcomes.

According to Forbes, a professor at Warwick Business School actually found increased creativity and collaboration (and hence productivity) among those he studied at a variety of UK-based tech companies. Again, there are so many variables, not least the industry in which you operate. But it is possible to see some positive outcomes from social media usage at work. LinkedIn, for instance, is one of the best platforms for business development and networking. For any client-facing role or sales team in a company, the use of LinkedIn should be encouraged for lead generation and peer interactions, with many companies even providing LinkedIn-specific training.

It is possible to see some positive outcomes from social media usage at work.

A word of caution, though. Social media sites rank second in the leading routes for malicious software attacks. These kinds of cyber-attacks can cause havoc for your business. One study identifies that, while the technical aspect of social media cyber security can be well looked after, the human element (ie, human error) is often overlooked and can lead to serious consequences for your company’s cyber security.

The personalities of your staff – and how social media impacts them differently

One reason to hesitate before integrating social media into your workplace is that workplace-related social media platforms increase feelings of peer pressure in employees. This kind of dynamic may restrict the capacity for independent thought.

As all human resource professionals will know, the way people experience life varies based on their personality. With social media addiction, there is a personality element that can lead down one of two paths. In a literature review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health it was argued that introverts are found to use social media to compensate for a lack of real socialising, whereas extroverts are more likely to use it to enhance their social lives. At the extreme end of each side, high usage leads to addiction.

Alongside personality, age is also a factor. Given that the workforce is increasingly made up of people who essentially grew up on social media, research into the habits of students is informative – given that they are one key group that is poised to enter the workforce.

In the paper Development and Validation of Social Anxiety Scale for Social Media Users, factors such as privacy concerns, interaction anxiety, worrying about the content they shared, and the anxiety of self-evaluation were all identified as key issues that students were facing when it comes to engaging with social networking sites.

Factors such as privacy concerns, interaction anxiety, worrying about the content they shared, and the anxiety of self-evaluation were all identified as key issues that students were facing when it comes to engaging with social networking sites.

Another student-based measurement tool developed to assess the boundaries of social media addiction found that this largely young demographic is likely to suffer self-esteem issues with excessive usage as well. This focus on young, well-educated people shows that the workforce of tomorrow is at real risk and that something must be done to ensure that skilled workers avoid the pitfalls of social media usage, which could damage their mental and emotional health, and thus their working lives.

Rethinking social media at work

Social media has an impact – at home and at work. This must first be acknowledged. It’s true that right now there do appear to be both good and bad outcomes from social media usage at work, but the danger is that without really conclusive research at our fingertips, HR managers are not equipped to deal with this ever-growing issue.

The key will be to keep abreast of the latest developments; understand how different age demographics relate to social media at work; as well as the extent to which social media usage is a must for your particular industry. Boosting the good sides and being constantly vigilant regarding the down sides will be vital.

So it’s a case of remaining aware, rather than trying to solve the entire problem in one go.

About the author: Nausheen Popat, Founder & Chief Operating Officer

Nausheen Popat cofounded Lifecare 20 years ago with Alniz Popat, and is today responsible for managing and coordinating the operational running of the business across Dubai, Kenya and Qatar. Nausheen focuses on delivering Lifecare’s operational excellence strategic initiatives. She has been integral in developing relationships with customers and major service providers in the market in order to promote strategic partnerships that serve our clients and promote the growth of the business. Nausheen is a graduate of the University of Northridge, California and holds a bachelor’s degree in Hotel Management.