Social relationships and the networks they create have a crucial impact on our health, well-being and longevity. Having close relationships with family and friends is highly protective of health—as protective as exercise or quitting smoking. Moreover, people with strong relationships can weather stress more easily and suffer fewer effects of stress on their health. The social networks that develop from connections among people provide a variety of resources from emotional support to opportunities to build social capital and collective action.
The quality of social relationships in the workplace matters for employee health and well-being. The evidence shows that positive social connections at work—supportive interactions, a sense of belonging and effective teamwork—improve worker well-being and can protect against harmful effects of workplace stress. Positive relationships at work are also good for the bottom line. Research shows that these connections can increase productivity by improving how employees work together to get the job done.
Creating positive social relationships in your workplace may sound like a worthy goal, but how do you accomplish it? Below are a set of promising practices for doing just that. These strategies are backed by strong research demonstrating their efficacy in improving worker health, well-being and job performance.
1: Fostering Supportive Supervisor Relationships
Many studies have documented the beneficial effects of manager support on employee well-being, productivity and retention. Research shows that both emotional and practical support can be highly effective. This section highlights promising practices for fostering supervisor support in two important areas of employee need: 1) integrating work with family and personal life, and 2) mental health on the job.
Supervisor Supports for Family and Personal Life
Growing numbers of Australian workers are primary caregivers to young children or elderly parents, which has led to an increase in work-life conflict, where work demands and expectations interfere with family responsibilities. According to recent national surveys, work-family conflict is now one of the top stressors for workers, and this source of stress has been consistently linked to negative effects on employee health and well-being.
Teaching supervisors to be more supportive of the work-life challenges their employees face can be a simple and effective way to improve both employee well-being and workplace outcomes.
Three studies tested a similar training method to increase family-supportive supervisor behaviours in three industries and very different workforces: nursing home employees, grocery store workers and white-collar IT professionals. The training was designed to enhance supervisors’ skills and motivation to support employees’ work-life needs by focusing on four kinds of supervisor behaviours:
- Providing Emotional Support—expressing empathy and understanding about employees’ work-family demands
- Providing Practical Support—working with employees to resolve daily problems on the job, such as adjusting a shift due to a family emergency, or providing concrete supports for employees’ work and family needs such as access to company resources
- Modelling Work-Family Balance—demonstrating how to integrate work and family through modelling these behaviours on the job (for example, leaving the office to attend a child’s school program or staying off email on the weekend)
- Creative Work-Family Management—reorganizing work to support employee effectiveness both on and off the job (for instance, giving workers more input into their schedules or finding ways to minimize travel for a short period).
Collectively, these studies demonstrated that training supervisors to increase their family-supportive behaviour had significant benefits for employee well-being including:
- Reduced work-family conflict
- Improved physical health, sleep quality, and sleep quantity
- Increased parental time with children
- Improved job satisfaction and engagement.
The intervention also had beneficial business outcomes including:
- Reduction in employee intentions to leave the organization
- Improved employee organizational commitment
- Improved employee job performance, according to supervisors’ ratings.
Supervisor Supports for Mental Health
One in five Australians lives with a mental illness with mental health problems being a leading cause of workplace disability and lead to more lost workdays than chronic physical health conditions like diabetes, arthritis or asthma. Managers can play a key role in establishing a work culture supportive of mental health issues in the workplace by providing support through:
- Early detection
- Help connecting employees with mental health resources
- A culture of mental health awareness that recognizes the importance of employee emotional well-being.
- Identification through workplace conditions that may trigger mental health problems.
2: Fostering Supportive Co-worker Relationships and Social Belonging
Creating a workplace culture in which employees are able to develop positive and supportive relationships with each other can be a powerful strategy for improving worker well-being. Research shows that supportive co-worker relationships are associated with higher levels of happiness and lower levels of negative emotions and depressive symptoms. Also, a sense of social belonging at work—a positive identification with a work group, team or organization—is positively related to worker health and well-being.
Employers can foster co-worker support and social belonging through a number of strategies. One way of doing so is by promoting effective teamwork and another is by encouraging the formation of peer support groups in the workplace that focus on building community among staff. The latter strategy may be most appropriate in contexts where high levels of stress are intrinsic to the job, such as in health care settings. Two separate high-quality studies of physician support groups found individuals who participated in these groups experienced fewer symptoms of burnout, with one study also showing improvements in physicians’ work engagement and experience of meaning in their work. In both studies, peer support groups were professionally facilitated and employers set aside job time for staff to engage in the groups. Other key features of these support groups included that they:
- Aimed to promote collegiality (co-worker support) and community
- Focused on discussion of common work concerns and issues (such as personal and professional balance)
- Emphasized gaining a deeper understanding of co-workers’ experiences and viewpoints.
A sense of social belonging and mutual support can imbue work with meaning and enhance self-esteem, helping workers to better manage workplace stress.
3: Creating Conditions for Effective Teamwork
Work has become increasingly interdependent, with more teams and flatter hierarchies. Many employers want to improve the way their employees work together in teams. Research shows that when teams function well, they enhance employee well-being, as well as improving productivity and performance. Research on high-performing teams has found that they share certain key dynamics including:
- High-quality communication
- Shared goals and knowledge
- Mutual respect between members.
These dynamics foster positive connection and alignment between team members, making it easier for them to do their jobs and cope with stress.