Is workplace social media damaging your employees?

(Originally published on HRM Online)
Organisations work hard to create connections and collaboration between their employees. Increasingly, firms are embracing social media platforms to encourage this, with tools such as Yammer and Workplace by Facebook ubiquitous. But just as there is an increasing body of research showing the negative effects of social media usage in our personal lives, is it time to consider whether using these tools at work is similarly damaging?

Social media is a fact of life in most workplaces. 30,000 companies around the world use Workplace by Facebook in the hope that it “promotes openness, feedback and diversity to engage employees and drive cultural change”.

Subscribers to Yammer, Microsoft’s rival platform, are harder to spot as the platform is integrated into Office 365, but as far back as 2012 a McKinsey Global Institute study found that 72% of companies were using some form of social media internally to promote communication and collaboration.

And there are plenty of advocates who point to the benefits this has brought. Harvard researchers found that employees who used such platforms were 31% more likely to find colleagues with relevant expertise, as well as using the platforms to “make faster decisions, develop more innovative ideas for products and services, and become more engaged in their work and their companies.”

Impressed? It gets better: the McKinsey study, which looked at just four industry sectors, argued that maximising the use of social media technologies at work could unlock $1 trillion in value annually.

The benefits are not just clear, they are substantial, inarguable even. So why are we even talking about the subject?

Workplace social media platforms are designed on the same principles as their non-work counterparts. Engaging and user-friendly, they provide a constant stream of news, video clips and updates from colleagues across the organisation. Posts can be liked and shared just as they can outside of work, and just like other platforms, the number of colleagues you are connected to is visible.

And while the above research argues the productivity benefits of this in the workplace, there is an increasing amount of evidence that these exact same features can be very damaging to users in their personal lives.

A 2014 study demonstrated the impact Facebook can have, finding an inverse correlation between time spent on the platform and self-esteem; the longer you spend on Facebook, the less good you are likely to feel about yourself. Further studies found that the relationship was causal, and it’s not simply that people with low self-esteem use Facebook.

This is in part because we compare our lives and experience to those we see online; photos of a friend on holiday can reinforce the fact that we are on the sofa at home, and eating our reheated pasta in front of an Instagram feed of Ottolenghi delights has the same effect. Curiously, this works for both positive and negative items we see; watching Nigella choke down stale bread while your partner serves you filet mignon is just as depressing.

This in turn is proven to lead to feelings of envy and social isolation, which can be hugely damaging both mentally and physically. And then there’s the productivity issue: social media is addictive – it’s designed that way – and users can easily spend hours on the platforms, feeling genuine symptoms of withdrawal when they do eventually log off.

Those cravings can also be accompanied by a fear of missing out, physical fatigue and depression, hardly feelings you want to create in your employees.
And to cap it all, a study at the end of 2018 demonstrated that the reverse is true; reducing the participants’ exposure to social media to ten minutes a day led to a decrease in loneliness and depression.

So if there is such a large body of research demonstrating the negative impact of social media, surely it’s time to consider all of these findings in a workplace context? There are plenty of work-related scenarios that could replicate many of the situations found to be harmful elsewhere.

It’s not hard to imagine employees spending too much time on social media at work just as they do at home, particularly when many companies encourage the creation of genuinely social groups alongside work-related content.

Anxiety can quickly be generated by looking to see whether or not your boss has “liked” your latest post, or when you notice that peers in your team have more followers or connections than you do.

Work platforms are often used to share positive news about promotions, team achievements or company successes. If you’ve missed out on a role you applied for or feel that your pay rise doesn’t reflect the wider performance of the firm then this sort of celebration could easily feel smug and self-congratulatory.
Perhaps your colleague has posted a selfie from their trip to the New York office that you see while you’re sitting on the bus, late again, on your way to work. Are you going to “like” that?

All of these situations occur frequently on work social media platforms, posted to provide updates, create a sense of shared success and community. And they are all exactly the same as the activity that is proven to have a negative mental and physical impact on social media users outside of work.

To date there is no robust body of research looking specifically at the effects of social media in a work context. The main platforms had a long honeymoon period before academics seriously studied the potential downside of this new phenomenon that was sweeping the world, and it’s only in recent years that this has been comprehensively analysed.

So it is with workplace social media, a relatively new evolution. Much of the writing to date has focused on the potential upside and benefits it brings – that trillion-dollar McKinsey bounty – and we are still arguably in that same honeymoon phase.

But if we know beyond doubt that social media can be damaging and dangerous to users in their personal lives then surely it’s time to think twice about how far we should encourage its use when our employees come to work.

To go one step further, if you insisted your employees perform activities that were proven to have negative physical and mental side-effects on others then you would be negligent at best, at worst culpable. Social media does exactly that, so shouldn’t we start to reconsider how we use it at work?

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