7 Practical Ways Managers Can Foster Social Connection and Support Mental Health

Vix Anderton Wellbeing Specialist

At EW Group, we are passionate about making mental wellbeing part of the conversation within businesses, and consistently weave the subject into our training and consultancy. To mark Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, EW Group Communication and Leadership Specialist, Vix Anderton, shares 7 practical ways managers can foster social connection and resilience at work.

Why mental health should matter to workplaces

The topic of mental health can sometimes be overlooked in the diversity and inclusion agenda, but it shouldn’t be, given how crucial a role it plays in maintaining resilient, healthy, safe, and inclusive workplaces.

Both the human and business cases for this are clear:

  • According to mental health charity, Mind, one in four people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England
  • Deloitte research in 2022 found that 28% of employees have either left in 2021 or are planning to leave their jobs in 2022, with 61% citing poor mental health as the reason they are leaving
  • According to Business in the Community, 41% of employees experience poor mental health that is work-related with the leading causes being excessive pressure, workload and long hours

Most of us spend more than half our waking hours at work. With the number of single-person households growing, work may be the only source of meaningful connection and social interaction for many people.

Human beings are primed for connection. Our nervous system is designed to regulate with other people. We need meaningful social interaction to thrive.

The impact of loneliness and isolation

The UK Government estimates that loneliness costs UK employers £2.5 billion every year. The main contributing factors towards this cost are an increase in staff turnover, lower wellbeing and productivity and the impact of caring responsibilities.

The effect of loneliness and isolation on mortality is comparable to the impact of well-known risk factors such as obesity, and has a similar influence as cigarette smoking, making lonely workers more likely to get sick.

Conversely, 57% of people feel happier if they’ve got a best friend at work and 24% feel more productive. With this year’s theme of Mental Health Awareness Week focussing on loneliness, it’s a time to focus on our connection with others and what we can do to support good mental health in the workplace. Here are our top 7 tips for fostering social connections and supporting your colleagues’ mental health in the workplace.

7 tips on supporting mental health at work

1. Lead by example

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation”

Audre Lorde, American writer, feminist and civil rights activist

One of the most important things managers can do to support the mental health of their colleagues is to take care of themselves. This is firstly to ensure they have the capacity to care for others; when we’re stressed, our social engagement system goes offline and it’s virtually impossible to be compassionate or empathetic. It also sends a powerful message about what types of behaviour are rewarded in an organisation.

Managers need to learn how to regulate their own nervous system. They need to be a role model for authenticity and vulnerability by asking for help. Take regular breaks, especially a lunch break, and consider what time you’re sending emails; people will follow your lead.

2. Intentionally create opportunities to connect

Don’t leave connection to chance, especially with the growth in remote working. Allocate 10 minutes at the start of a meeting for people to connect one-on-one. You might be surprised at how much more people contribute and engage when they’ve been given a chance to have a chat with a colleague first.

Another way to cultivate a sense of fulfilment and connection is with a weekly review. This can be done via a messaging platform or in person. Invite each person to share an Apple, a Lemon and a Sponge. An apple is something sweet that happened. A Lemon is something that sucked. And a Sponge is something they learnt. Not only will people learn more about what’s going on with their colleagues, but this style of regular review also helps promote a culture of learning and feedback.

When creating opportunities for connection, get creative. Create diverse ways for people to interact. Be mindful to not over-rely on one type of activity or you’ll risk consistently excluding the same people if they can’t or don’t want to attend.

3. Have regular 1:1s and focus on active listening

Managers should be meeting 1:1 with each team member at least once a month, and ideally once a week. These conversations are an opportunity for you to connect with your team and get to know them. Ask how they best like to be supported.

The better you know your team, the more likely you will notice if a challenge starts to emerge and the more likely they are to be honest about what’s happening.

Focus on active listening. Cultivate an attitude in these conversations that nothing is a problem in need of fixing. If you find yourself tempted to fix it, one of the most powerful questions you can ask is “do you want advice?”. Most people can figure out what they need to do if given some space to think it through with someone. Be that person.

4. Cultivate a culture of appreciation and celebration

It’s said that people need to hear about three times as much positive praise as constructive feedback to override our inherent negativity bias. Encourage colleagues to share an appreciation for at least one person once a week. Lead by example – take the time to thank people verbally, with little notes or emails, or even the occasional gift. Don’t just base your appreciation on results. Thank people for showing up and being themselves.

5. Ditch the team-building day

Organise meaningful volunteer projects. Volunteering together off-site and working on a common goal not connected to work can help your employees build lasting relationships, make connections and network and boost morale by contributing to a good cause outside of work.

6. Have a mentoring or buddy programme

In many high-risk activities like scuba-diving or the Army, it’s common to have a buddy system. A buddy is someone who actively looks out for you at the same time you are looking out for them. Having a designated buddy to check-in with on a regular basis gives colleagues someone other than their manager to share challenges with and build connections with.

A mentor or buddy programme is a great way to help new hires onboard and form meaningful connections. It can also help people across departments form deeper relationships little and often.

7. It’s good to talk

Creating a safe space and encouraging your team to talk is crucial. Training and appointing mental health first aiders and implementing training programmes to help people better recognise and help people who are struggling and manage their own mental health are both good places to start.

Challenge Consultancy delivered a training programme for a leading theatre company on Dignity at Work which included Mental Health Awareness and focussed on equipping attendees with an understanding of mental health and ways to look after their own mental health and support others. This type of initiative both encourages more openness about the mental health struggles we all face at some point and creates opportunities for connection to reduce the risk of loneliness.

Change starts with action. What are you going to do differently to cultivate more connections in your workplace?

By fostering a safe environment in which mental health is destigmatised and employees are completely confident in voicing concerns and getting the assistance they need, organisations will take a huge step towards a truly inclusive culture. We hope this blog and our tips have given you some useful insights and actions you can take towards achieving this.

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