Researchers randomly divided 73 older individuals suffering from high blood pressure into two groups. One group was given $120 and instructed to spend $40 on themselves every week for three weeks. Members of the other group were also given $120 but asked to spend $40 on others every week. At the completion of the experiment, the self-oriented spenders had no change in blood pressure. The group that donated their funds to others or societal causes, or the social-purpose spenders, experienced a blood pressure drop as large as medication or exercise would have generated. In another study, researchers randomly divided a group of adolescents into two groups, one volunteered for charitable causes and the other did not. Four months later, those who volunteered had lower cholesterol than those who hadn't. Social purpose appears to improve other aspects of health as well. There are studies linking acts of social purpose to reductions in inflammation, infectious disease and obesity, for example.
In cases when acts of social purpose don’t spare us from physical ailments, they might still reduce the associated pain. Academics have scanned the brains of individuals whose hands received a mild electric shock. Individuals who had just done an act of social purpose showed a lower pain response in the brain than those who hadn’t. In another study, the same researchers asked cancer patients living with chronic pain to cook and clean for either themselves or for others at their treatment center. When they were helping others, their pain levels were lower than when they were helping themselves.
Cardiologist Alan Rozanski from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City summarizes the evidence on charitable acts and health with, “The need for meaning and purpose is…the deepest driver of wellbeing there is.”
It’s expected that involving employees in charitable activities strengthens societal causes. After all, this is why we organize such activities. Many of us might be surprised, however, to learn that employee social-purpose acts also support the health and wellbeing of the involved employees. In other words, employee volunteering and giving is a true win-win.
This post is an excerpt from “Do Good At Work: How Simple Acts of Social Purpose Drive Success and Wellbeing” (Morgan James Publishing, November 24, 2020) by Bea Boccalandro, contextualized for this venue.
In early 2017, General Mills tried something new to reduce the deep divide in American society that the 2016 election had exposed. The consumer foods brand started Courageous Conversations, a series of events that consist of a presentation by an external speaker and a small group dialogue facilitated by an employee trained to keep interactions constructive. These conversations dive into the sensitive issues that most organizations encourage workers to tiptoe around: Islamophobia, immigration policy, police brutality, Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ movement, for example. How did this brave experiment go?
Five years of Courageous Conversations, held seemingly everywhere from manufacturing plants to online forums, suggests that it is possible to organize civil and productive workplace dialogue around divisive issues. The first Courageous Conversation attracted a few dozen participants. Now they attract hundreds. Employees report increased levels of understanding and empathy for other groups. They also say that the techniques learned through Courageous Conversations have helped them improve relationships outside of work, including with family.
Following are resources for companies looking to facilitate team-member conversations that reduce divisiveness:
In summary, it appears that corporate leaders don’t have to feel helpless around the blue-red conflict that’s tearing apart workplaces and communities. On the contrary, every company can play a role in healing America's painful and dangerous divide.