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Wellness in the Age of COVID: The Power of Social Networks

by Claire Tsai and Joanna Han

COVID-19 restrictions make it difficult to maintain our social networks. But they are more important now than ever before.


THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC has affected the lives of just about everyone on the planet. Each day seems like an altered version of our previous existence, with familiar routines replaced by entirely new habits.

At this point, we are well acquainted with the concept of ‘social distancing’ — minimizing close contact with others in order to reduce the spread of the virus. Among other things, this means avoiding crowded places and non-essential gatherings, wearing proper protective equipment, limiting contact with people who are at higher risk and keeping a distance of approximately two metres from others at all times.

In terms of how social distancing has changed our former routines, it has meant eating out less, if at all; reducing or eliminating travel outside of the country; teenagers missing out on school dances; and people being interviewed for jobs via Zoom. We are living in a truly paradoxical situation: Social distancing makes it significantly more difficult to maintain our relationships and can therefore weaken communities; but the research is clear that in order to maintain our well-being, we need our communities more than ever in times of crisis.

The question is, ‘How can we maintain social distancing for a long period of time in a healthy manner?’ In this article we will discuss the impact of social distancing on wellness in three key areas: psychological health, sociological health, and physical health. Along the way we will make some recommendations informed by Behavioural Science for maintaining your wellness during this trying time.

The Impact on Psychological Health

Stress related to lifestyle changes and fear of the pandemic has had a significant impact on mental health worldwide. According to a report by Mental Health Research Canada, five per cent of Canadians recorded high to extreme levels of anxiety prior to the pandemic. By April of 2020, that number had increased to 20 per cent, while self-reported cases of depression increased from four per cent to 10 per cent during the same period.

Meanwhile, in a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in the U.S., nearly half of respondents reported that the COVID-19 crisis was harming their mental health. Federal emergency hotlines registered a more than one-thousand per cent increase in April 2020 compared with the previous year. Several months later, the impact on mental health is likely much greater. These alarming statistics indicate that COVID-19 is a major threat not only to our physical health, but to our overall well-being. Studies indicate that the most common sources of anxiety include the fear that friends and family will become infected, losing one’s job and general economic anxiety. Certain demographic groups are more vulnerable to mental health issues during this crisis, including healthcare workers, younger Canadians and low-income individuals. These three groups alone have seen the largest increase in anxiety levels since the pandemic began.

Healthcare workers, younger Canadians, and low-income individuals have seen the largest increase in anxiety levels since the pandemic began.Tweet this

Working from home is another factor that negatively impacts mental health for many people. Transitioning work that was previously done in person certainly caused plenty of confusion and stress at first, but the main issue arises from the loss of distinction between our personal and professional lives. For many, at-home distractions have increased while work motivation has decreased. When there is no variety in our environment, the days can seem to blend together, and the resulting depletion of wellness can undermine our work performance.

The sharp decline in mental health caused by the pandemic can be attributed in large part to the mindset that has taken shape, coupling a fear of the virus with the sudden loss of control in our lives. Pessimistic views and feelings of hopelessness can easily cloud our judgment at a time when negative news is all around us.

An emotional response to a crisis situation is unavoidable, and the behavioural research indicates that this influences our thinking in two ways. First, we categorize the quality of the emotion we are feeling as either positive or negative, and this guides us to find similar information to justify that quality. The information we find is then used to guide our judgment. In the context of COVID-19, this could mean that a person first categorizes the virus as something negative, then focuses on finding more negative information to confirm that categorization — which then drives negative emotions.

In the case of a worldwide viral infection, strong emotional reactions can induce individuals to ignore important or rational information and consider the situation with only a negative frame. This sets off defensive systems within us — including fear, which, as the research indicates, can be incredibly contagious. Social media compounds the situation. In today’s environment, news and social media spread like wildfire, and as a result, the pandemic has been referred to as the first ‘social media info-demic’.

As the conditions of the pandemic continue to change daily, communication strategies are becoming increasingly essential in providing true information in a positive frame — instead of stirring up excessive feelings of anxiety and fear in order to capitalize on the situation.
Since last March, news sites around the world have seen record traffic and activity — including an uptick in younger users. This increase in the consumption of news has been shown to cause increased feelings of anxiety and stress—and can even become mentally overwhelming when the topic includes a worldwide virus that no one has any control over. Seven out of 10 Americans have reported that they have had to take breaks from news about the coronavirus for prolonged periods of time.

Along with coping with personal health concerns, financial predicaments and day-to-day changes to our routines, we have had to deal with news sources primarily focusing on death tolls and the politicization of COVID-19 instead of positive updates—such as voluntary concerts by young musicians and donations sent to help the elderly and healthcare workers facing the virus. It is important to consume a healthy balance of information instead of falling prey to constant negative and oftentimes exaggerated or even fake news — which can drastically change how we view our situation and act upon it.

The behavioural research shows that being part of a trusted group of people who can provide support for each other’s fears can help to widen our perspective, allow us to approach things more realistically and calm our worries. From friends to family, online forums to religious or work-related groups, a strong community can disrupt the downward spiral of negative emotions.

Even though it is impossible to avoid stress entirely in the face of a pandemic, we can begin to develop healthier and more positive mindsets as our understanding of the virus grows. Research on coping with stress indicates that it is not the type or amount of stress that determine its impact, but rather our mindset that can drastically alter the end result.

Ensuring that we maintain a healthy mindset regarding the pandemic — and the future — can increase the possibility for ‘stress-related growth’, which increases our resilience. That doesn’t mean ignoring the news and shutting yourself off completely from negative content, but instead, accepting the situation and rationally moving forward in a positive manner through self-reflection and with support from others.

Such stress-related growth can actually increase our psychological strength and help us reorganize our priorities while shifting our perception of life. In understanding that stress related to the virus is indicative that we care deeply about the situation, we can begin to view the stressor as less of a threat and utilize our stress response for our own positive gain. The behavioural research shows that taking on this adaptive mindset can increase positive emotion, reduce negative health symptoms and strengthen psychological functioning under acute stress.

Now more than ever, we are seeing how mental health infrastructure allows our society to remain functioning and healthy. Just as countries have taken drastic steps to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed, we must now address the wave of mental and behavioural health needs by providing widespread mental health screenings and better access to professional care, especially through online means. A failure to address this in a timely manner could lead to a plague of COVID-induced mental health impacts in the years ahead.

The Realm of Sociological Health

Even as societies have shifted in and out of lockdown, social distancing continues to be a fact of daily life, clashing with our deep-rooted routines and directly defying our instinct to connect with others. Each of us has had to give up important social events or activities in recent months — from hugging a close friend to taking a favourite yoga class to cancelling overseas travel. However, if we continue to completely eliminate all social interactions, the loneliness and social isolation that follow will make coping with stress that much more difficult.

The concept of ‘social distancing’ can be interpreted as putting an end to all social interaction. We advise people to consider it instead as ‘physical distancing’ in order to better understand the purpose behind the practice. Focusing on strategies that we can collectively adopt to remain connected to our social networks is critical to our sociological health.

One key role of community is the influence it provides in terms of ‘social norms’ — what we perceive others to be doing and what is therefore deemed to be socially acceptable. Whether through direct consensus within a community or through public messages in the news or social media, these times have truly highlighted the impact of the social connotations linked with certain behaviours. On a positive note, we have seen how government-mandated facial masks have spurred creativity, with trendy prints and designs being sold all over social media; but we have also seen how a simple post within a small community of friends out for dinner can tempt others to go out as well. In this way, social networks can spread both harmful and beneficial behaviours during an epidemic far and wide.

The fact is, fighting a global pandemic requires large-scale cooperation that overcomes short-term individual costs to benefit the collective effort. As a result, social influence is a powerful tool in a pandemic. People are highly reactive to the choices being made by others — especially close friends and family. As a result, our actions regarding social distancing and mask wearing can be beneficial for an entire community. In the same vein, holding others accountable for not practising safe behaviour can drive a stronger sense of community and increase trust and respect between individuals.

Behavioural research shows that people are more likely to cooperate when they believe others are cooperating, too, which highlights the importance of ‘observability’. For example, sharing a photo on Instagram of a healthy dinner you prepared at home, sharing a link to your favourite at-home workout or even having a polite-but-serious conversation with someone who has travelled for anon-essential reason can be incredibly effective at altering behaviour.

People are more likely to cooperate when they believe others are cooperating, too.Tweet this

The effects of community and social norms can also operate at the level of countries. For example, New Zealand was initially able to contain the virus by appealing to a sense of community. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ensured that while she was addressing the country, she highlighted the goal of taking care of others and that each individual was responsible for the health of the entire country. Conversely, some countries were dismissive of the virus early on. Months later, they were struggling with reopening and closing their economies as the virus advanced within their borders, further decreasing morale and trust from citizens.

Going forward, an over-arching recognition of the required collective societal effort will be imperative in containing the virus. One thing is certain: The ability for communities to come together and work towards the common goal of reducing the spread of COVID-19 will be the key to effectively cohabitating with this virus over the long term.

The Impact on Physical Health

For many, the psychological and sociological effects of the pandemic have also affected their physical health. COVID-19 has resulted in the closures of gyms, stadiums, swimming pools, dance and fitness studios, physiotherapy centres, parks and playgrounds. Not surprisingly, many people have found themselves less physically active in recent months — and the concurrent increase in screen time, irregular sleep patterns and worsening diets compound the effects of more sedentary behaviour.

Increasing our physical activity is essential to improving our well-being, and the implications go both ways: Poor physical health has been shown to lead to an increased risk of developing mental health problems, just as poor mental health can negatively impact our physical health. As a result, the initial lack of exercise during the lockdown phase had a significant impact on mental health worldwide. Routine health checks related to blood pressure, weight and cholesterol levels have also been reduced significantly due to social distancing guidelines, increasing health risks in these domains.

The research is clear that physical activity is highly impactful in not only enabling us to stay physically healthy, but also in improving mental well-being. Exercise influences the release of positive chemicals called endorphins in the brain, giving rise to mental alertness, energy, and positive mood. The World Health Organization recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity every week. Making the conscious effort to become physically active is one of the most powerful ways to maintain a healthy mindset over the long term.

Physical movement has also been proven to be helpful during times of anxiety, crisis and fear while enabling us to regain some sense of control in our lives. In studies, individuals with low levels of anxiety have been linked to participating in a greater amount of moderate-to-vigorous exercise. For many, exercising at home — even without equipment and limited space — is still possible. This can involve stretching, climbing the stairs, a short walk outside, or even dancing to music in between hours spent in front of a screen. For those who have internet access, there are a plethora of free resources for staying active during the pandemic while complying with social distancing measures.

As indicated earlier, lacking a sense of community can exacerbate the impact of the pandemic on our physical health. Prior to the pandemic, we could rely on certain communities to help us keep up a healthy lifestyle — whether it be a gym buddy, a co-worker or a diet group. Nowadays, we must work harder to maintain these essential connections, but it is still possible, in different ways. To ensure we don’t lose the support and motivation we once received from others, individuals can check in with those same friends or gym groups by sharing online workouts, helpful tips, healthy recipes or other online resources.

The Road Ahead

Maintaining our social networks in a safe manner is one of the most vital aspects of achieving well-being in a time of crisis. With social distancing requirements likely to be with us for some time, building strong and effective social networks should be a top priority for each of us. Times like these call for staying connected with friends and family through both online and offline interactions. As our workplace, shopping and entertainment activities move online, we must take proactive steps to stay connected through online platforms.

Having strong social networks can also allow us to maintain social distancing healthily for long periods of time by avoiding compliance fatigue and countering the negative effects of isolation. Approaches for enabling repeated physical interactions include limiting interaction to a few repeated contacts. Building ‘social bubbles’ of the same few individuals enables us to regularly interact with a small group in order to reduce the negative sociological, psychological and physical effects of the pandemic. Repeated contact with the same group can also provide a much-needed sense of normalcy that has been lost in recent months.

In closing

Even as small glimpses of ‘normalcy’ begin to return to our lives, some aspects of social distancing are likely to remain in place indefinitely. A failure to address the resulting psychological, sociological, and physical effects will only lead to further mental and physical health issues down the road.

The digitization of nearly everything in our lives makes it easy to forget to keep up with our social lives. But as indicated, social networks help us cope with fear, anxiety and stress. Creating an individualized portfolio of the activities outlined herein will positively impact your well-being as we move into the next phase of the pandemic.

Some people reading this might actually feel that pandemic-era life is better than before — that it makes them feel more liberated and independent to not have to come into direct contact with people every day. However, a substantial body of research shows that as humans, we simply cannot thrive on our own. Although we may face challenges in building or maintaining our social networks due to COVID-related constraints, we must fight harder for them now more than ever. So, text your old friend, schedule a video call with a loved one, or reconnect with your workout buddy. You do not need to fight this battle alone, and neither do they. 

Claire Tsai is an Associate Professor of Marketing, a member of the Behavioural Economics in Action Research Cluster, and Director of faculty recruiting at the Rotman School of Management. Joanna Han is a student at the University of Toronto Schools, where she is the executive of her school’s Wellness Committee and a school Prefect.

This article appeared in the Winter 2021 issue. Published by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Rotman Management explores themes of interest to leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs.

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