I am one among the 22% of UK adults who do not actively use Facebook1. It worries me that amongst the HR profession that minority may not be so small, behind a continuing explosion of social media penetration. It may of course just be me. But love or loathe LinkedIn, friend or foe of Facebook, if I deem myself to be a future-focused professional, I figure I’d better wake up and watch whether this is a good or bad thing for our workers. Our Insights page indicates that I’ve taken a view that our readership does enjoy enough of online time that I’m happy to encourage more!

Wellness and wellbeing are interesting concepts for the world of technology in all its guises. The world of HR and people technology presents a stark pose of the question as to whether tech is good for us, because as professionals we are compelled to keep the pace with it and yet most I suspect share a conviction that a part of the HR role is to support the healthy humanity of our employee populations. HR needs to look therefore at the extent to which each generation and application of new tools serves wellness and wellbeing well.

Here I take a look at the impact of social media as a behavioural phenomenon on how employees fare in their working lives. Here are my reflections on the impacts of social media that I give the green, amber and red metaphorical health traffic lights to. Then some ideas as to just what HR could do about it all:

Social media should be social. Communication, connection, collaboration tools are there to share, to talk, to interact. Online media is distinguished as “social” because of two-way features of use. Networking and messaging fulfil a basic human need for interaction and community. Think Maslow. Then consider the extra reach of the world of work via social. How many more people can keep in touch? Even confined to the classic HRIS product, we see R&D in the “chat” and the daily to-and-fro.

It follows that posts, pins and profiles provide a potential breakdown of barriers to diversity. There is a step in between a face-to-face prejudgement both by virtue of broader user base (you don’t need Oxbridge to get yourself educated on YouTube, nor can anyone tell the colour of your skin at first post) and of different natural advantages of these users.

A green light too for me on learning. Blended learning traditionally has included one-directional e-learning content delivery. 84% of social media users in this country access YouTube and it’s a good example on learning potential. YouTube allows learning to be self-directed, a more natural style to many and addressed only in part by online material the organisation spews out at them for compliance (“yes, sure, I watched that”. Tick). Expertise is closer to us. Natural curiosity is captured. In a looking at HR technology trends for 2017, I made reference to the potential for LMS to reinvent itself with social media tools.

Health and well-being tools these days are integrating HR systems with the gadgets (Fitbit et al) that everyone’s getting fitter with at home. Our employees can be tracking steps, sleep and stress and keeping in touch with healthy advice from their place of work. Data integrated in this way can flow naturally into the HR ability, through insight and information, into an ability to help, support, be aware and this at both an individual and a collective level. In the same way that there has been quite a focus on financial education as a key part of an organisational responsibility, then social media can be used to offer support forums and online interaction with professional help….

But I’m not so sure. Is this compensatory measure for damage the “social” stuff is causing in the first place? We talk to the doctor online because we can’t get to the doctor because we’re staring at a small screen? Mitigate the cortisol soar with 10 minutes of app-based mindfulness because of the sensory stress of an extra 1 hour and 49 minutes per day spent on social2? If we partake as an employer, then are we guilty of feeling pleased of a sticking plaster when we poked the wound in the first place? Let’s say our analytics tell us that the harder we work our people and the more tools we throw at them, the worse our wellness metrics become, what will we do? Who is brave enough to turn them off?

Online interaction does support flexible working. That’s great for equality of opportunity and for work-life balancing acts. But we’re always on. The cost of a flexible home-life is a flexible means of access of us to our work and our work to us. When socialising means using the same tools, in no matter which place or at which time, then what cost the not switching off?

Big Brother was rather fun as an original TV show. Yet not all care for the blurring of personal and professional boundaries that is afoot. Are you taking care of your personal posts, pics and following with half a mind on your work? On the other hand, those same employees and would-be’s can big-brother us. Think Glassdoor, which is now reaching out to employers to fight back and use their stuff to get out there first with information.

There is a difference between wellness and well-being. Wellness is about our health and the prevention of illness, typically focused on that which is physical; well-being is more holistic and includes an emotional, intellectual, spiritual and even financial happiness, which forms a package whole-of-life experience. It is the latter which is probably more the concern for employers (certainly of office workers). More than half of social media users report detrimental well-being effect – increased anxiety, becoming confrontational online, comparing self to others, difficulty relaxing3. On balance, social media is bad for us. Folks are now switching off not on for a break. Unlike my Facebook status-lack, I’m in the new majority here. Give me no-screen time for a breather please.

Physically those extra “sociable” hours in new-style networking are spent sitting and each of those hours at some detriment to our health. Do you find it surprising that we are all drawn to the headlines (tweets, posts, blogs of course!) that shout to us that 95% are now checking phones in the hour before bed? We know this. Employers need eye for those impacts and:

What about the mental effect on abilities? Increasingly quick-fix and multi-media streams of interaction means less practice at focus, paying attention, detailed tasks. This is bad for performance in roles involving study, research, concentration. The new social workforce threatens to lose skills of face-to-face communication. We can’t read faces, use our body language or adjust our tone of voice. Media intelligence and emotional intelligence could be working in an indirect correlation.

Every reference I use here is out of date at the time of writing and for sure in a year’s time. Social media penetration in the UK is at about 63% of all adults (more of course amongst those available to work). That’s up from 45% just 5 years ago, rising fast still4. There is no stemming this tide.

Two questions arise:
What role for employers to make social media a tool for the workers not against them?
What guidance can HR offer in this grey area where home and work collide, clash and yet complement?

It’s easy to suggest that we must have a policy. And sure, we probably should. That is not substantive enough to offer. Take yourself to task with that policy in running with social media engagement in support of a future vision for new generations of your work-force and capture it5.

  • Start by getting to grips with it yourself. This will also mean ongoing learning and not trying to do it all. Increase your familiarity.
  • Find out about the positive tools your internal and external suppliers can offer that are health-related, to include new media reach in the learning and well-being strategies. Spread a little happiness! As an employer, use your local reach to tip that balance so that it’s over half of your employees who find positive stuff outweighs the negative.
  • Tell your employees what you do with social media. I’ve often commented on the need for HR and IT to work more closely in some of today’s more threatening online areas such as cyber security, data protection and personal guardianship of kit. The same goes for HR taking charge of rights and respects for privacy and for information about what is said and known about them, as well as how they should behave.
  • But do make some use of what is out there! Frankly daft to miss the tricks that can apply to candidate vetting, promoting the employer brand and an increased talent outreach. Use the transparency to your advantage. Find out about the roadmap ahead for the applications you own in the organisation already and new tricks.
  • Watch out for what you see at the individual level. There is an interesting question about the duty arising when becoming aware of new information about someone’s well-being. Advise managers about what to do if they spot online activity that suggests there is a problem. I would treat that just as if it happened in the office in an old-fashioned email.
  • Be playful. Marketing departments, learning providers, recruitment partners and web developers are all set up to work with you to give ideas on new ways of making traditional HR stuff jazzier to suit social.
  • Be serious. Address the effect of your contact with everyone at home. I’m liking the shift from work-life balance to work-life integration as a focus.

Friend or foe, social media is fact. The effect of wellness and well-being on workers is still guesswork but it is no doubt profound. In reading this feature, you are part of that tide and I’d swim with it.
1 Statistica, 2016, report on Social Media Penetration UK.
2 Global Web Index, GWI Social Flagship Report Q4 2016, globally 1 hr 49 mins per day is spent per adult on “social media networking or messaging activity”. Note the UK and US tend to lag behind faster-growing nations.
3 Research series by Anxiety UK into social media effects 2012.

4 ONS, August 2016.
5 Note that, by the way, the greatest increase in the UK user base is in those in the 55-64 and 35-44 years of age brackets, so don’t make the mistake of finding this exclusionary. (Ofcom, Media Use and Attitudes 2015 Report).

About the Author: Kate Wadia

Kate’s passion at work is for bridging the gap between technology and people at work, translating for HR professionals the language of HR systems and making meaningful their potential. She believes that success with people technology is through people and that people are the differentiator. Using simple techniques drawn from HR experience, project management, business psychology and analogy with everyday life, Kate presents and explains how to work well with technology and technology projects in an HR leadership role. With a background in contrasting private and public sector HR management, Kate developed her thinking in seeking for herself to understand her first HR systems project-work. Kate is currently the Managing Director of Phase 3 Consulting, offering an independent take on the HR systems market in the UK, through a network of experts and a talented, growing internal team. Kate’s guiding principle is that openness offers knowledge-sharing, credibility and trust. Incorrigibly enthusiastic and up absurdly early for a working morning, she swears that she only drinks three good coffees a day, but nobody believes her! Kate also writes as an HR Zone columnist.

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