How to Reduce Workplace Stress and Strengthen Social Connection
Why social connection at work matters and how to strengthen it
Back in the ‘good old days’ there was regular time to down tools for birthday morning teas, bakeoffs, team lunches, theme days and Friday drinks. These were the benign enablers of organisational culture and trusted relationships.
Yet, Opportunities to connect socially at work have all but stopped.
Stifled by the relentless pace and pressure of work, we're too busy for fun and your business is paying a steep price:
- Everyone has their head down, beavering away and there simply isn’t time to stop. The overwhelming burden of endless meetings and permanently full inboxes are all-consuming
- The rise of flexible work conditions and better technology mean more people are working alone, away from the office
- Where once we’d implement one change at a time (at what now seems an almost leisurely pace), concurrent, high stakes change and the resulting increased work is a permanent reality
- Workplace stress is on the rise and wellbeing is the casualty.
Like a ‘canary in the coal mine’, the first sign you’re likely to have fallen into this trap is the results of your regular staff engagement survey.
Coaching many large corporate businesses and public service departments, this year’s results show an alarming and common trend. While each have notable strengths and individual challenges, the consistent theme is that people are disconnecting and burning out.
And one of the main culprits is the decline of informal social connection.
What Happens When Social Connection Stops
The social connection freeze is insidious. It’s not like organisational leaders intentionally decide that ‘from Monday, all social activities will stop.’ Rather, it happens slowly, over time, meaning we don’t realise the impact until the cracks begin to appear.
- People stop helping each other – we’re not deliberately unhelpful, we simply don’t have time
- Silos create impenetrable walls – unaware of what other teams do, unconscious protectiveness and competition trump cross-functional collaboration
- A ‘siege’ mentality sets in – everyone bunkers down and struggles on alone
- Informal sharing of skills and innovative ideas shut down – people become task focused and stop seeking broader input to solve problems and improve quality
- We become isolated and cut off from broader connection – we think we’re the only one facing this struggle and believe that others simply don’t care
- Motivation and satisfaction decline – intent on surviving, we detach and lose perspective
- Poor behaviour creeps in – fuses shorten and we become less tolerant, tired and ‘snappy’
- Productivity and results suffer – we work harder yet fall further behind.
Why Social Connection Matters
As humans, we’re hardwired for in-person social connection. We’re naturally tribal and robbed of the opportunity to connect we become insular and lonely. Even extreme introverts need opportunities to connect, albeit in quieter, smaller group settings.
Providing fun, engaging and regular opportunities to come together socially creates an outlet to defuse ever-present workplace stress. Spontaneous laughter provides respite from the grind of work and re-energises people!
Social connection is the lubricant that converts collegiality and comradery into genuine collaboration. We’re far more likely to successfully achieve a shared goal when we know each other as people first and colleagues second.
‘Work only’ discussions rarely build enduring relationships. When we don’t get to know, like and trust our colleagues as people, we’re unlikely to discover what truly matters to them, what they need and how we can help.
A rushed, Monday morning exchange of ‘Hi John, how was your weekend?’ leaves little time to a) stop long enough or care enough to hear the answer and b) understand what’s truly going on for our workmates.
We shut down and respond with tokenistic, superficial answers – ‘Fine thanks, how was yours?’, before we pursue that all-important, work-related conversation.
That stress, depression, anxiety and isolation are increasing is hardly surprising.
This is a mostly hidden pain your people are suffering.
But that doesn’t mean as leaders, we can’t do anything about it beyond referring obviously suffering individuals to Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counseling.
How to Build Social Connection and Strengthen Your Organisational Culture
Helping many organisations solve this insidious problem, I’ve discovered a simple, effective approach. Here's how to build shared commitment to create a happier, healthier workplace:
Step 1: Discover what your staff engagement survey results really mean.
Create a safe space and encourage people to be honest. Giving Connection and Wellbeing a score out of 10, ask small, cross-functional groups to describe ‘Our Workplace TODAY’ . Explore what led them to give the score they chose. This creates a baseline against which to measure progress.
Step 2: Shift the focus to what IS possible and within the team’s control.
People are natural problem solvers and with rapid-fire brainstorming, you’ll soon collect hundreds of ideas on how to address the ‘busyness’ problem. Once you identify the obvious ‘employ more staff’ idea, many ideas will be simple, low or no cost and do-able.
Step 3: Emphasise the benefit of taking time to save time, prioritise the ideas.
Ask, ‘What’s the ONE idea that if we were to pursue it, would make the biggest, most positive difference to the most people?’ Individuals will identify the ideas they believe in most. This creates natural teams of those committed to turning their ideas into actions. Form cross-functional Action Teams – eg:
- Social Connection teams who could create a rolling calendar of fun and regular social activities. Tip: Anything involving food is always popular!
- Wellbeing teams might organise walking meetings, mental health lunch talks, mentoring, mindfulness sessions or physical space improvements (eg greening with plants and Friday Desk Cleanups).
- Process Streamlining teams empowered to address the most frustrating and time-wasting bottlenecks and pain points in shared processes.
For your people to own the change, they need to identify what’s needed and be responsible for making it happen. Change is then done 'by' them, not ‘to’ them or ‘for’ them.
Step 4: Engage your leaders to lead Social Action Teams (yes, this is a leadership responsibility!), create goals, time-framed action plans, success measures and the approach. Identify what ‘success’ looks like and how progress will be tracked and reported.
Step 5: Integrate Social Action Plans into your regular work plans, KPIs and reporting and make it an Agenda Item for leadership team meetings. This provides transparency; holds teams accountable and creates the opportunity to ask for help where needed.
Step 6: As actions are implemented, take regular ‘temperature’ checks in team meetings. Ask each person to again give Connection and Wellbeing a score out of 10. This enables tracking against the baseline created in Step 1, identifying what to modify (based on what’s working and worth the time, and what isn’t).
Discover which actions:
- Are making a positive difference?
- To start, stop or change?
- Need increased leadership focus and support?
If you’ve been neglecting social connection as a nice-but-unnecessary thing to do in your workplace, think again.
The positive cultural impact will create wide-reaching benefits and justify the time it takes to enable them.
If you need help to address problems highlighted by your staff engagement survey; empower your people and strengthen your organisational culture, let’s talk and see how I may be able to help.
In the meantime, I'm curious! What does your workplace do to have fun, enhance wellbeing and increase social connection?
I'd love to hear what works so we can share ideas.