Work Design Principle #3: Improve Social Relationships in the Workplace

Medical team taking a break_985 by 555

Social relationships and the networks they create have a crucial impact on our health, well-being, and longevity.1 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.2 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.3,4 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.5 Happier, healthier employees are also less likely to call out sick, incur high medical insurance costs, or quit.2,6

Promising Practices

 

Creating positive social relationships in your workplace may sound like a worthy goal, but how do you accomplish it? This section highlights 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.

Promising Practice 1: Fostering Supportive Supervisor Relationships

Younger woman being mentored by supervisor in office setting

Promising Practice 1: Fostering Supportive Supervisor Relationships

Many studies have documented the beneficial effects of manager support on employee well-being, productivity, and retention.7 Research shows that both emotional and practical support can be highly effective.8 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 American 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.9 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

Employers are increasingly aware of the need to address work-family conflict in their workforce, but may be unsure how best to do so. 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 studies8,10,11 tested a similar training method to increase family-supportive supervisor behaviors 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 behaviors:

  • 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

  • Modeling Work-Family Balance—demonstrating how to integrate work and family through modeling these behaviors 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).

Supervisors learned these new behaviors through a one-hour, self-paced computer tutorial, a one-time facilitated discussion about the topic, and a multi-week self-monitoring exercise designed to encourage supervisors to put these behaviors into practice in their own workplace. The training technique proved to be highly effective in each of the three different occupational settings. Collectively, these studies demonstrated that training supervisors to increase their family-supportive behavior with direct reports 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.

 You can find a detailed employer guide for implementing this training strategy (the Family Supportive Supervisor Behavior Training Manual) along with other relevant materials, in the Helpful Resources section at the end of this module.

Supervisor Supports for Mental Health

One in five Americans lives with a mental illness.12 Mental health problems are a leading cause of workplace disability and lead to more lost work days than chronic physical health conditions like diabetes, arthritis, or asthma. 

Often, employers’ efforts to help workers improve their mental health (such as mindfulness or stress reduction classes or employee assistance programs) place the responsibility for seeking care on the individual.13 However, employees already struggling with mental health problems may be ill-equipped to engage in proactive help-seeking behaviors or may encounter workplace barriers to accessing such resources. 

The good news is that managers can play a key role in establishing a work culture supportive of mental health. When properly informed about mental health issues in the workplace, supervisors may be able to provide 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.

With these goals in mind, some employers have adopted mental health training programs for managers. Although scarce in number, studies examining these programs show promising results, including improved mental health and job performance and reduced employer costs related to mental health problems.13–18 These programs focus on improving supervisor’s mental health literacy, communication skills, efficacy in addressing mental health matters in the workplace, and recognition of workplace conditions that may themselves produce increased risk for psychological distress. The most effective programs are more highly interactive and go beyond passive online learning formats.

In one study, supervisors in a major Canadian telecommunications company who received a three-hour mental health awareness training program reported improved knowledge, attitudes, and intent to promote mental health at work. The findings also suggest that the program resulted in a significant cost saving to the company by reducing short-term mental health disability claims. The three-hour training program included interactive case studies intended to help managers practice the skills they were taught. They included topics such as early identification and recognition of employee mental health problems and effective actions to promote worker mental health (e.g., reducing workplace stressors, assisting employees displaying warning signs of excessive stress, and communicating openly about stress management resources).  

A similar training program used with managers in a large Australian fire and rescue service also significantly reduced rates of work-related sick leave among employees, producing a major return on program investment for the company. 

Promising Practice 2: Fostering Supportive Coworker Relationships and Social Belonging

Male and female engineers share some downtime in a warehouse setting

Promising Practice 2: Fostering Supportive Coworker 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 coworker relationships are associated with higher levels of happiness and lower levels of negative emotions and depressive symptoms.19 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.20

Employers can foster coworker support and social belonging through a number of strategies. One way of doing so is by promoting effective teamwork (for more on this, see “Promising Practice #3: Supports for 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.21,22 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 (coworker support) and community
  • Focused on discussion of common work concerns and issues (such as personal and professional balance, medical mistakes, meaning in work, caring for patients)
  • Emphasized gaining a deeper understanding of coworkers’ 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.20,23 Fostering social belonging in the workplace can even help employees cope with the negative psychological effects of being a member of an undervalued occupational group, as the following case study illustrates.24

CASE STUDY: Community and a Sense of Social Belonging Can Reduce 911 Dispatcher Burnout and Turnover

Strength of Evidence: Strong 
Background: The jobs of 911 emergency service dispatchers are inherently stressful. In a typical year a dispatcher answers more than 2,400 calls. They must frequently make life-or-death decisions in minutes, communicate quickly and accurately with police officers, and manage the strong emotions of callers. Although 911 dispatchers face much of the same trauma as emergency responders or police officers, the dispatchers are considered clerical workers and are often undervalued by the first responder community.24 Over 40% of call dispatchers experience high levels of burnout, and turnover in the field is high and rising.25
The Work Design Initiative: This study aimed to reduce burnout and turnover among five hundred 911 dispatchers in nine American cities by fostering a sense of social belonging, support, and positive professional identity. Dispatchers received one email each week over a six-week period from their supervisors. Each email prompted the dispatchers to support their peers by sharing stories (through an online platform) that highlighted the unique challenges and value of their work; the emails also included a featured response and a link to the rest of the stories submitted. For example, one email shared the story of a dispatcher who was able to save the life of a woman who was in a domestic violence situation by connecting her to the right support.
What Changed? Dispatchers who received these emails reported a significant decrease in burnout measured several months later and resignations in this group were reduced by half. These findings suggest that even a low-cost but meaningful change to the workplace social environment—in this case, building social connections and professional pride among 911 dispatchers—can enhance worker well-being and organizational commitment.

Companies can also foster social belonging and support through social events and activities that reduce interpersonal barriers and celebrate shared successes.2,26 In an exploratory study of frontline workers in a large national retailer, supervisors were trained to cultivate social connections among workers by deliberately encouraging them to socialize with each other and have fun on the job.27 Managers recognized that when employees were given permission to develop camaraderie with each other, they were more likely to enjoy work, cooperate as a team, and serve customers well. One supervisor articulated this company value when he said: 

If your employees are happy [and] having fun, you're going to have some of the best employees and you're going to succeed, because they're willing to help you out, do the work with you.

Supervisors set the tone by encouraging staff to socialize with each other during downtime in the stores and by joking with and expressing a friendly personal interest in their employees. One supervisor improved early morning morale by playing energizing music when staff members were preparing the store for opening. Participants repeatedly described their camaraderie with coworkers as a key factor in heightening their mood and engagement at work and their ability to interact productively with customers. 

Promising Practice 3: Fostering Support & Social Belonging for Marginalized & Underrepresented Employees

Hands of different races and genders cooperatively touch large gears

Promising Practice 3: Fostering Support & Social Belonging for Marginalized & Underrepresented Employees

Workers who are in the numerical minority in a work unit — especially when they are members of a historically marginalized group — often feel highly visible and are concerned about being accepted and treated fairly. For example, women in a department or a company with mostly male workers, mostly men in top positions, or jobs that were once considered “men’s work” may face additional stress because it may be harder to build comfortable, supportive relationships at work. These settings also carry a higher risk of harassment, which affects health and well-being as well as decisions to stay in the job. Women in these settings may feel they have not been treated fairly, and decades of research shows that perceived discrimination and harassment predicts worse physical and mental health. The negative health effects may be even more serious for women of color, who face the risk of both sexual and racial/ethnic harassment.28–30

The remaining discussion focuses primarily on the experiences of Black and Latinx employees because most research on workplace racial discrimination and health has focused on these groups. However, we recognize that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and other people of color in the United States have also been the target of toxic forms of discrimination that negatively affect their health and well-being. 

Black and Latinx employees in the United States face health risks tied to racial discrimination in the workplace as well as the health impacts of structural racial injustices (such as residential segregation and under-resourced schools, disproportionate policing, and barriers to political participation) in the wider world.29 Many studies have found, for example, that individuals who report experiencing racial discrimination at work have worse mental and physical health,31 including evidence that discrimination is associated with worse cardiovascular health (with outcomes such as higher blood pressure, more variable heart rate, and blood and saliva biomarkers predicting greater risk of serious cardiovascular events).32 

While support from managers and co-workers and a sense of social belonging at work benefit workers’ health, one study finds that Black employees have fewer close friends at work, on average, and report less co-worker support than their white peers.19 This means Black employees, and perhaps Latinx employees as well, are faced with both higher health risks (tied to discrimination and structural racism) and fewer resources (in the form of supportive work relationships) that support their well-being.

Talking about race and racism is challenging, but claiming to be “colorblind” is not effective or helpful. In fact, research shows that Black people interacting with those who assert they do not pay attention to race see those individuals (and their organization) as more biased. Additionally, a recent study of urban schools provides evidence that a more inclusive culture seems to support the physical health of Black teens.37 The researchers found that students of color who attended schools that explicitly valued diversity in their mission statements had better physical health (as measured by objective biological indicators of future risks of cardiometabolic diseases) than similar students in other urban schools. Extending this to workplaces, talking about race and the benefits of diverse organizations may support the health of Black employees by fostering a greater sense of belonging and inclusion, as well as more engagement and commitment to the organization. You can find some guidance on how managers and supportive co-workers can acknowledge racism that occurs outside the workplace in the Helpful Resources section at the end of this module.

Promising Practice 4: Creating Conditions for Effective Teamwork

Group of colleagues discuss work around a conference table

Promising Practice 4: 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.38,39 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.5 The case study below highlights a highly effective team-building initiative that draws on some of these principles.

CASE STUDY: Improving Teamwork and Collaboration Can Enhance Worker Well-Being

Strength of Evidence: Strong
Background: Child welfare caseworkers and community mental health clinicians work in high-stress environments where teamwork is central and employee burnout and turnover rates are high.40
The Work Design Initiative: The ARC (Availability, Responsiveness, and Continuity) initiative aimed to improve team dynamics and workplace climate and was tested among social services workers in child welfare, juvenile justice, and mental health programs.40,41 Over a 12-18 month period, facilitators delivered workshops and training to enhance workers’ communication, trust, and goal alignment within teams. In a later phase, teams worked together to implement changes they believed would improve client services and their own experiences on the job. 
What Changed?

The program led to significant improvements in workplace climate and employee well-being, including reduced symptoms of employee burnout and turnover, and enhanced morale, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment. 

One high-quality study42 demonstrated that various team-building initiatives in a health care setting led to improved staff mental health outcomes. Key strategies included: 

  • Establishing overlapping schedules to improve communication about patient conditions
  • Revising information and messaging systems to address communication gaps between management and nurses
  • Instituting team meetings to discuss problems and solutions to relationship issues.

Fostering mutual respect between team members across the occupational status hierarchy is also a key component of making those “lower” on the job ladder feel supported and connected. One exploratory study43 of hospital-based certified nursing assistants (CNAs) found that their sense of efficacy and well-being at work was strongly impacted by how they were treated by higher-status members of the patient care team. When CNAs' contributions to the team were recognized and valued by nurses and doctors, they felt more confident and empowered to communicate their observations and concerns about patients’ condition to the rest of the team. When they did not feel respected or “seen” by higher-ups, their sense of team identity was threatened which undermined their morale and work engagement. 

Together, these findings suggest that improving processes of teamwork and collaboration can be an effective means for improving worker well-being in socially connected work environments.

Helpful Resources

Abstract illustration of people connected like petals of a flower in multiple colors

Helpful Resources

 

Strategies and Tips on Supervisor Supports for Family and Personal Life

  • The Family Supportive Supervisor Behavior Training Manual is based on the computer training for managers and supervisors that was part of the STAR (Support. Transform. Achieve. Results.) initiative from the Work, Family & Health Network. STAR materials guide workplace teams to reduce work-family conflict and increase productivity. Materials are geared toward either office settings (mostly salaried) or health care settings (mostly hourly).

  • The New South Wales workplace health and safety government regulatory body, SafeWork, provides a tip sheet on how workplace managers can provide practical and emotional support to subordinates.

  • The Families and Work Institute’s Workflex and Managers Guide provides a practical overview of key steps managers can take to create a more effective and flexible workplace for everyone.

  • The National Fund for Workforce Solutions’ Improving Supervision for Frontline Jobs outlines a case study of skilled nursing facilities in Massachusetts, where supervisors were trained in interpersonal communication and conflict management to help improve job quality and employee retention using a coaching approach to supervision. Results after a year-long trial indicate that supervisors improved their listening skills, established better relationships with the staff working for them, and were better able to resolve issues without disciplinary actions.

Supporting Employee Mental Health

  • EARN’s (Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion) Mental Health Toolkit provides resources for employers to build awareness and offer support for employees’ mental health.

  • The American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Working Well Toolkit, from its Center for Workplace Mental Health, provides HR professionals and business leaders with practical strategies, assessment tools, and mental health programs to educate employers about current best practices to create supportive workplaces.

  • Thrive at Work’s SMART work design model, by the Future of Work Institute at Curtin University in Australia, includes a framework for mitigating illness through detection, support, and accommodation as well as a good practice guide on reducing the stigma associated with mental health in the workplace:

 

RESPECT Manager Mental Health Training reports on a training program for managers that enhances their awareness of common mental health issues and their role in recognizing and managing these issues in the workplace. A version of this program was tested in an Australian fire and rescue service with promising results for employees' well-being and employers return on investment (findings cited in an earlier section of this module). The program was developed collaboratively by the University of New South Wales’ Workplace Mental Health Research Team and the Black Dog Institute.

  • Frontline Health Care Providers Need Proactive Mental Health Care. Working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic can have devastating mental health consequences for health care providers. Drawing on research in the U.S. Army, this article proposes an innovative approach to support employee mental health by embedding dedicated mental health personnel in frontline medical units. 

Strategies and Tips on Coworker Supports and Social Belonging

SafeWork provides advice and tip sheets on improving workplace health, including:

If you are interested in exploring survey questions to help assess employee perceptions of workplace social relationships, check out these resources:

  • What Works Wellbeing Question Bank: A bank of validated questions from What Works Wellbeing that can be used by employers to measure workplace climate and employee well-being. Scroll to page 17-18 to see questions about work relationships, support and teamwork.

  • CIPD Good Work Index 2020: Survey questions on workplace climate and employee well-being developed by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). Relevant questions about workplace social relationships can be found on page 14.

Strategies and Tips for Supporting Marginalized and Underrepresented Workers

  • The Race Equity and Inclusion Action Guide from The Annie E. Casey Foundation provides an overview of key terms and concepts related to race equity as well as ideas about how to advance and embed racial equity and inclusion in your organization. This short article provides a guide for how business leaders can acknowledge racial violence and other forms of racism that arise outside of the workplace, but affect employees’ well-being and focus at work. 

  • What Works from the Center for Employment Equity provides evidence-based ideas to increase diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace.

  • While diversity training is a popular workplace initiative, it is important to learn about the pitfalls of diversity training, as well as ideas for improving diversity training.

  • The #NowWhat: The Sexual Harassment Solutions Toolkit from New America provides individuals, managers, advocates, and policy experts with an overview of factors that drive sexual harassment in industry sectors and promising legal reforms that can be adapted. The toolkit provides action items for top-down and bottom-up approaches to ensuring respectful work environments free of harassment.

  • Discrimination, Bullying, and Harassment from Australia’s Thrive at Work discusses what constitutes discrimination, bullying and harassment in the workplace and how employers can act to put policies in place to protect their employees

Creating Conditions for Effective Teamwork

  • Brandeis University’s Relational Coordination Research Collaborative provides a 13-week Online Training for Improving Teamwork that trains managers and employers in research-tested strategies for improving teamwork and collaboration.

  • What Works Wellbeing offers a briefing on Team Working that provides evidence-based actions employers can take to improve their workplace social atmosphere.

  • The ARC (Availability, Responsiveness, and Continuity) initiative described in the teamwork case study above is designed to improve team dynamics and workplace climate in community-based social service agencies. Further information and tools for implementing this initiative can be found in the book, "Building Cultures and Climates for Effective Human Services."

References

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