Humans need connection to survive and thrive. It is well documented that loneliness is bad for health, so maintaining relationships – including work relationships – is vital for good mental health. Social support can help cushion us from all kinds of stress, including work-related stress. Managers have always had an important role in maintaining team cohesion, making sure that inter-team relationships are healthy and staff are informed, included and supported. Today that role is more important than ever with an increase in people reporting that they feel lonely.
As busy managers, we are not immune from the mental health issues that have accompanied the Covid-19 pandemic. As a manager, I can testify to this on a personal level – I miss coffees with work colleagues, being able to have a quick word with my boss, and running into people while making a cuppa. Outside work, I have been physically separated from family and friends and unable to visit them or meet up for long periods. My conversations, both business-related and personal, are virtual, with my “in person” connections being with the post-lady who delivers my mail and at checkouts in stores where we are hidden behind masks.
The good news is that we can do something to help our staff feel more connected – that in turn will give us a boost, too.
Creating more opportunities to connect with each other reduces the sense of isolation and increases a sense of belonging, which is vital for better mental health. Managers can help create a more connected and safer feeling environment for work in a number of ways:
1.Create opportunities for connection
Enable meaningful work relationships; a cooperative and collegiate team is not just more pleasant to belong to, it increases people’s investment in team goals. Highlight examples of people supporting each other at team meetings and encourage others to share how someone has helped them (if appropriate).
2. Encourage acts of workplace kindness
A kind act is a positive connection. Lonely or isolated people feel less so when they act kindly to others, and in turn the recipient feels better too and is likely to pay it forward. Lead by example through small acts of kindness. Perhaps the team can even work on an online charity event together to support an agreed cause to create some community time?
3. Create space for social interaction
Be approachable and create space in your schedule where staff and colleagues can drop in online for a coffee and chat. These opt-in meetings should have no agenda or mandate to attend and should replicate informal social interaction. Also, put aside some time for chatting at the top of meetings. This helps staff clear their minds, air stresses and enables opportunities for social support. By doing this, it shows that social interaction is not just tolerated but encouraged.
Perhaps at the end of the week encourage staff at an opt-in coffee chat to share things they have been doing or learning. Share development opportunities such as TED talks or CMI articles and discuss them.
Create a sense of fun and celebrate successes and special events. Invite a senior manager to drop in on a virtual meeting to recognise the efforts of your team and thank them. If people are ok with it, celebrate birthdays as you would when together in person (imagine logging on and everyone is wearing a party hat and holding a sign saying Happy Birthday, wouldn’t you feel cared for?). Get a team together to organise a fun Christmas/holiday online party. Have little competitions such as bring-a-meme (suitable for sharing at work) and see which one causes the best laughs, make a party hat and wear it at the next coffee get together online. Perhaps, even send something nice out with a handwritten thank you note for the holidays? A team having fun together helps reinforce a sense of belonging.
4. Check in with colleagues and staff
Let staff know that if they are struggling that then your door is open to them for a private one-one chat. You are not a counsellor, but you can point them to sources of support within your organisation and externally if needed and encourage them to see their GP if necessary. Ensure that the work burden is not adding to their problems and make appropriate adjustments to working patterns, workload or even their role. Make sure a struggling member of staff knows that they are a valued member of the team by telling them and illustrate this with something they have achieved and/or something they bring to the team. Feedback and recognition is not just for performance reporting. It can help reinforce people’s connection to work and be a great morale boost when someone needs it.
Share the burden by setting up a buddy system for staff to check in on each other occasionally. Ensure any managers with staff under you are checking in with their staff so no-one is left isolated because they are perhaps working on a one-person project.