Millions of people have suddenly been told to work from home as part of the “social distancing” response to COVID-19. It’s a critical step to contain the virus and protect public health. However, the isolation that comes with social distancing can negatively impact “social health”—that is, the extent to which people feel connected to others. Add that to the general sense of disruption and uncertainty, and we’re in for a very rough stretch. Here’s what leaders can do to improve social health at their companies, better support their people and ultimately improve business results.

Making a different epidemic even worse

Having employees work from home, avoid large meetings and other recommendations from the CDC are critical right now for public health. Unfortunately, social distancing will likely exacerbate a different (but far less well-known) health issue that also has a significant impact on business results: chronic loneliness.

People depend on social health—a sense of connection to others—to be happy, physically healthy and productive. However, 46% of Americans have symptoms of loneliness. Chronic loneness has long-term health risks, similar to those of obesity and smoking. Research has also show that loneliness impacts business results. Employees who are lonely have significantly lower job performance (as measure by supervisors’ evaluations) when compared to their peers. This is because lonely employees tend to be less engaged on the job, and they’re less effective at collaborating with coworkers.

A perfect storm brewing

People are feeling anxiety, fear and frustration from rapid and dramatic changes to their daily lives. There’s a sense of uncertainty because we still don’t fully understand the epidemic. Social venues have closed, and social events have been canceled. Even small things, such as visiting friends or relatives, need to be curtailed. We have a perfect storm brewing because this is a time when the support of social connections is critical, but that’s exactly what’s being lost.

Five ways leaders can keep their employees (and organizations) socially healthy

Leadership is ultimately about providing people with what they need to succeed. The best leaders interpret this responsibility broadly. Right now, many employees need the sense of connection to others that social health brings.

The average person spends one-third of his or her life at work—and many of us spend a lot more than that—so the day-to-day social connections we build in the workplace matter. Here are five things leaders can do to maximize social health in their organizations—and also improve business productivity—amid the COVID-19 epidemic:

Recognize this isn’t business as usual, and step up your leadership. Don’t underestimate the toll that social isolation will likely take on your people; so, this is a time to step up as a leader. Take the time to notice what’s going on for each individual, look for signs of stress or loneliness, and ask people how they are doing. This might take more effort on your part because you may need to do it virtually, but that’s part of demonstrating leadership.  

Intentionally create opportunities for connection and community. Many people have lost the in-person, day-to-day social connections that work brings—perhaps in other part of their lives as well. You can help offset the loss by intentionally creating new opportunities for connection and community. For example, I know one entrepreneur who has done something very clever—he’s launched a daily morning video conference for his entire team. They all work remotely, and the call is a chance for all workers to say good morning and talk about anything that might be on their minds. The goal is to overcome the isolation and create a space for community. It’s just 20 minutes, but it might be the only outside contact for some people that entire day.

Give people guidance and support to be at their best virtually. Remember, working remotely and connecting virtually are new for many people. Give your team the feedback, guidance, and support they need to be at their best. A conference call with noisy kids in the background is distracting. Hosting a video conference in your PJs might be comfy, but it doesn’t project professionalism. Helping people look, feel and function at their best when working remotely provides multiple benefits: They are more effective, they are more productive and they are better able to create connections to make up for the lack of face-to-face work.

Be creative. This is also a time to be creative in how you establish a sense of connection across your organization. I know a leader who once hosted a “virtual ice cream party.” The goal was to break down silos between two remote teams and create a stronger sense of cohesion. She kicked it off by arranging a video link between two conference rooms, setting up ice cream and condiments bars in both locations, and leading some get-to-know-you exercises based on (you guessed it) the ice cream. Each location picked their favorites, so there were questions like, “You have Klondike Bars?! We don’t have any of those.” It worked because—let’s face it—who doesn’t love talking about ice cream? What opportunities do you have to be creative with virtual work?

Reinforce your culture. Culture is one of the most important things for any work environment. I think of culture as the “glue” that holds the team together and allows the group to be productive. With the dislocation, isolation and uncertainty right now, that glue is more important now than ever. Take the time to revisit your cultural norms, and remind everyone that you are still a team. Demonstrate your commitment to the culture by leading through example.

There are multiple scenarios as to how this epidemic may unfold, there’s tremendous confusion and none of us has much control over what the coming weeks and months will bring. However, we can control how we show up as leaders. Step up to the leadership opportunity by helping your people, and your organization, stay socially healthy.