How is social media affecting your employees’ mental health?
Social media is now a simple fact of employees’ lives. HR policies and practices at many organisations have had to change to accommodate this, and even the most dedicated professionals may occasionally find their attention drifting to their WhatsApp, Twitter or Facebook account during working hours.
Less well understood by the HR community is the effect of social media on our employees’ mental health. Indeed, even the medical profession is struggling to catch up with the enormous changes that technology has brought to people’s lives over the last 20 years.
It’s easy to forget how new social media is. The first recognisable site appeared in 1997 and this was followed in 1999 with the first blogging sites. Facebook and Twitter became global platforms in 2006, and the introduction of Apple’s iPhone in 2007 boosted uptake and user numbers. The cultural and health impacts of the near-universal adoption of these technologies has previously been unexamined. However, there is now an increasing body of research considering both the physical and mental advantages – and disadvantages, of social media.
So, what are some of the potential benefits for employees? When social media is used primarily to connect with others it can reduce social isolation and improve mood. There is also strong evidence that online communities can provide an invaluable means of support to those suffering with health problems. This has been shown in examples with adolescents in foster care or in the LGBTQ+ community.
However, there are a number of potential harmful consequences of excessive use of social media, which can negatively affect mental health in the workplace:
Anxiety and depression – studies have shown a progressive correlation in Smartphone ownership (now over 95%) and depression since 2007 onwards.
Cyber bullying – social media has unfortunately delivered the technology to vastly increase both the reach and sophistication of this material and equipped cyber-bullies with ways to conceal their identity.
Unrealistic expectations – the tendency for both ordinary and celebrity users to post messages of their idealised lifestyle creates envy and alienation. Engaging with filter-enhanced, idealised photography can also foster negative body image and feelings of inferiority.
Unhealthy sleep patterns – checking social media throughout the night leads to chronic sleep loss and depression. In addition, the blue light emitted from Smartphone screens suppresses melatonin production, thereby further disrupting normal sleep patterns.
Addictive behaviours – these can be reinforced by a constant need to see updates. Such behaviours can in turn cause withdrawal from friends and even close family members. Ironically, social media can increase isolation and harm relationships.
MANAGING SOCIAL MEDIA ISSUES IN THE WORKPLACE
So, how can HR leaders more effectively manage the potential negative impact of social media on your people’s mental health?
As a Consultant Occupational Health Physician, I’ve witnessed a growing number of cases of mental ill-health exacerbated by social media use. In recent years, I’ve supported several major companies in taking steps to develop positive social media usage policies.
Here are my recommendations for reducing the impact of social media in the workplace:
Monitor and reduce personal phone usage during working hours. Discourage phone use outside of normal breaks.
Manage access to social media websites on your organisation’s IT systems. Establish a clear, consistent policy for social media use, which may include restricting permissions to employees in roles requiring social media or restricting access to designated times. This will aid concentration and increase productivity.
Raise awareness and openness – this can be done with posters, an intranet or in person. It can make individuals aware of any help or support they can access. Consider establishing a Trained Mental Health First Aider to manage crises and signpost suitable treatment options.
Employee Assistance Programme provision – EAPs are now a well-established way of helping those suffering mental ill health or distress from social media. The availability of 24/7 telephone support and counselling have proved a real lifeline for many.
Occupational health referral – if there is concern about an individual’s mental health and wellbeing, a prompt referral can offer a timely assessment for support services, advice on fitness for work and suitable adjustments whilst they recover full health.
So, while social media has opened up communication channels undreamt of 20 years ago, there remains a large number of individuals who may fall victim to its darker influences. It’s important that HR professionals are aware of both the positive and negative influence that social media may have on employees, and make sure their organisations are equipped with the right toolkits to help address this effectively.