Good mental health in the workplace requires safe, healthy social connections
Reaching their potential in the workplace requires meaningful and safe social connections that allow employees to feel welcomed, included, heard, and valued.
An authentic relationship is one where both parties benefit and feel positive energy when interacting. One key learning in The Cure for Loneliness is people must feel confident and psychologically safe with social connections at work and home to flourish.
The pandemic allowed many employees to work from home, allowing them to enjoy autonomy and flexibility and escape the daily commute. However, along with the benefits of hybrid and remote work were the unintended consequences of a decline in the quality of human social connections.
Employees missed out on casual interactions and being challenged to cope with interpersonal group dynamics. They were not spending quality time in face-to-face interactions required to build deep human connections, so it can be expected the quality of social relationships declined for many employees.
An estimated 31 per cent of remote workers in the U.K. experienced loneliness in 2022. In Canada that year, approximately 60 per cent of survey respondents reported feeling lonely several times each week, and 46 per cent experienced loneliness daily.
As the number of remote workers declines with the pandemic recovery and more workers are asked to return to working onsite, many face anxiety and concerns about reconnecting with people in an office context. Developing social connections and meaningful relationships is a learned skill that must be used and practiced.
One consequence of decreased social skills is increased anxiety that tugs on employees to avoid interacting with people, putting them at higher risk of feeling isolated and lonely. In a study with The Globe and Mail and Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS), employees who perceived high isolation levels were found at significant risk of loneliness. Loneliness is not a clinical condition, but it can increase the risk of mental illnesses like depression, substance use disorders, insomnia, and cognitive decline.
Three steps to safe and healthy social connections
Learning how to surround yourself with people who bring you value and authentically care and allow you to do the same for them is a powerful charger for good mental health.—Dr. Bill Howatt
You get to choose or reject who you enjoy being around at work and home, and the people you choose have the same choice about you. Building and maintaining safe and healthy social connections requires skills and habits to sustain them. Employers who care about creating psychologically safe and inclusive workplaces understand their roles in helping workers through onboarding programs that assign buddies. However, with or without employer support, if you feel lonely in the workplace, there are things you can do to avoid feeling isolated or lonely in work or home life.
1. Accept — What you think is true may not be. Thinking you cannot meet people or feeling uncomfortable or fearful of rejection can freeze you and erode your mental health by engaging in compensating behaviours like drinking that become habits controlling your life. The first step is accepting that because you do not know how to feel socially connected does not mean you cannot learn.
2. Learn and practice — Accepting that you can learn opens the opportunity to be vulnerable, learn, and practice. Setting expectations is critical; there is no quick fix, but there is a fix. You can take a course or engage in self-study through reading or listening to books on isolation and loneliness to learn about options. Sitting with a mental health professional with expertise in isolation and loneliness can help you assess where you are and create a personalized plan. You can complete the Loneliness Quick Screen and leverage your EFAP or extended benefits psychological services to find a professional to explore where you are today with feeling lonely and connected in the workplace or at home. You can then develop a plan to learn and practice building safe and healthy social connections. These will create a positive charge and support mental health because people need people to thrive to their full potential.
3. Charge — You will have opportunities with your plan to charge your mental health but likely will experience drains when some people you would like to get close to reject your offers. We all have free will to like and want to be around whomever we wish to. The more you develop your social connection skills, the more likely you will be open to meeting amazing people. Both you and the people you connect with will benefit from new authentic connections. A social connection plan often will include joining a team or club, volunteering, or taking a course that puts you in contact with others. Working remotely or hybrid will require creativity to explain to your leader that you need to feel connected and invest energy in getting to know people outside of team meetings. You can meet others one-on-one online or in-person to lay the tracks and foundation for safe and healthy social connections. Feeling charged by social connections requires action and intention.
Dr. Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR Consulting.
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