Emotion Travels Through Social Networks The Same Way Viruses Do

stress work

Photo: /sizemore/ via flickr

“Leave your personal life at home when you come to work” might sound sensible, but it is totally unrealistic advice. Recent Gallup analysis shows that your wellbeing has an impact on the people you work with and on the people who work for you. Emotion travels over social networks in much the same way viruses do.

Jim Harter, Ph.D., Gallup’s chief scientist of workplace management and wellbeing, and Sangeeta Agrawal, a Gallup research manager, found clear connections in wellbeing levels among team members and between managers and those they manage. The study included 105 teams and 1,740 individuals whose wellbeing was measured in three six-month intervals. The average team size was 22 members, and the minimum team size was five members.

First, Harter and Agrawal found that wellbeing levels among team members were significantly connected to and dependent on the wellbeing of others on the team. The wellbeing connection within teams was significantly stronger than it was among employees who were not members of the same team.

Others have seen this kind of connection as well. Additional research, notably that of Nicholas Christakis, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., and James Fowler, Ph.D., shows that emotion travels over social networks in much the same way viruses do. “Based on this previous research, we expected to see that the wellbeing connection within teams would be much stronger than that among employees who were not members of the same team,” Harter says. “But the surprising finding was that the relationship between supervisors’ wellbeing and that of their direct reports grew substantially over time.”

Supervisors and direct reports appear to have a mutual influence on each other’s wellbeing, and this influence increases with time. Direct reports of supervisors with thriving wellbeing were 15% more likely to be thriving six months later.

Individuals with thriving wellbeing in the study’s first measurement period were 20% more likely to have thriving team members six months later. “This relationship is largely reciprocal,” Agrawal says, “meaning that individuals are likely influenced by the shared culture of their team and that individuals also appear to be influencers of their team’s collective wellbeing.”

The study points toward other areas to explore in the future. “These findings hint that a certain level of trust needs to be built before the wellbeing of supervisors can rub off on their team, whereas peers can have immediate influence,” Harter says. “But we need to study this in more depth in larger samples in the future.”

“There is plenty of evidence that wellbeing is shared within existing formal and informal networks and that it spreads based on social ties,” Harter continues. So it may be that people with high levels of wellbeing are good role models for others. A manager who cares about her health, for instance, may be more likely to encourage her employees to exercise or get checkups, if only by example.

And that’s an important finding. Insurance costs businesses a substantial amount of money. And so do absences, turnover, and low productivity. All those problems can be directly or indirectly associated with low worker wellbeing. “But high productivity, worker loyalty, and low healthcare costs also can be associated with high wellbeing,” Agrawal says.

That alone is an incentive for companies to concern themselves with workers’ wellbeing. And now that we know wellbeing is transmittable, businesses have an incentive to improve it.

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