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5 Ways to Cultivate Supportive Work Environments

The “Great Resignation” is a hard reality caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Labor Department (DOL) has estimated that 4 million people quit their jobs in April 2021 alone.

Now, cultivating a supportive work environment is imperative for organizations to exercise if they want to attract and retain top talent while remaining resilient. To better understand why, let’s first unpack social support.

What Exactly Is Social Support?

When you think of social support, who are the people that come to mind? Do you think of your family members and friends? How about your next-door neighbor? Would you consider your boss or coworker who sits in the next cubicle as a supportive resource?

According to Psychology Dictionary, social support means “providing assistance or comfort to other people to help them cope with a variety of problems.” There are four types of social support people have available to them within their social networks:

  • Emotional social support includes expressing affirmations, listening and validating another’s feelings.  
  • Informational social support involves sharing advice, referrals or information that can help with challenges and stressors.
  • Tangible social support means sharing resources, giving gifts and offering to share time and resources to help another person.  
  • Belonging social support involves including others in social events and spending time together on a personal level.

 Why Support at Work Matters

On average we spend more than 40 to 60 hours a week at work. Yet when we think about who is in our social support networks, we overlook our co-workers and supervisors.

Why? For many people, their social life centers around their workplace. Gallup studies have shown a strong connection between having a best friend at work and being highly engaged in our work. Employees who have support at work report feeling more connected and a stronger sense of belonging. They are also more productive and motivated to do their jobs.

Another study found when employees receive strong work social support, they are more committed to the organization and consequently are more likely to be adaptable. Let’s face it – going to work is more than just about collecting a paycheck.

Cultivate a Supportive Work Environment

People who have strong work support have more opportunities and resources at their fingertips than they realize. Social support networks, especially in the workplace, are meaningful and necessary for psychological growth and development.

Think about your own workplace as a support network. You may have examples of times when coworkers provided emotional support to you after experiencing a personal loss such as the death of a pet or family member or during a setback like not getting a promotion. If you take lunch breaks with your colleagues, share dinner recipes at monthly teambuilding events or invite co-workers out for happy hour, then you’ve experienced what it means to have social support at work.

The workplace can also be an excellent source of informational support. For instance, take a mentor who gives you networking tips or encourages you to stretch yourself professionally. Maybe you have a supervisor in another department who shares a cheat sheet with you that helps make work easier. These are all small yet important examples of work support that may otherwise be taken for granted.

How to Build Social Support at Work

I believe that any meaningful change must begin with intentional leadership. Whether you are a manager or someone without a formal leadership title, here are some suggestions for cultivating a supportive workspace for your team members:

Check-in with” versus “check-up on” your people.

The authors of a  Harvard Business Review article assert “checking in is really about collaboration; checking up is about suffocation.” In other words, when leaders display genuine interest in what their team needs to be successful in their roles, they are intentionally fostering a supportive work environment.

Build up opportunities for connecting as a team.

COVID-19 has made us more aware of the positive effects relationships have on our lives. We are social creatures and thrive best in community. Having a strong network of support can make us resilient in so many ways. Start by holding routine gatherings (in person or virtually) that are focused more on getting to know one another.

Invite conversations beyond work-related tasks and issues.

Make a conscious effort to talk to your coworker or supervisor about more than their jobs. Make a point to remember details they’ve shared about a planned vacation, a book they would like to read or their favorite TV shows. Asking icebreaker questions or games in meetings can be an excellent way to build this quality.

Verbalize and model organizational values around inclusion and belonging.

It’s not enough to know your organization’s diversity declaration statements, you must also walk the talk. This means promoting a workplace where everyone feels respected and valued for who they are, not only what they can deliver. Doing so puts you on the right track towards developing a social support network built on belonging.

Be a giver.

Research has shown a strong association between social support and health, both as the receiver and the giver of support. Be a leader who gives support and serves others through one of the four types of support (emotional, social, informational and belonging). Not only will you add value to your organization, you’ll reap the benefits of good health in the process.

We often think that social support can only come from one source like our family members or close friends. Supportive work environments can also be incredible sources of emotional, social, informational and tangible support if we broaden our perspectives about what it means to have social support. Shaping a resilient workforce for employees at all levels is key. Remember, there’s power in connection.

Interested in becoming a Featured Contributor? Email topics you’re interested in covering for GovLoop to [email protected].

Kima Tozay is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and subject matter expert (SME) on counseling and advocacy programs in her role at the Navy Fleet & Family Support Center in Everett, Washington. Her government career spans 15 years, starting in the Navy. Kima completed her Masters in Social Work degree from the University of Washington and has held positions with the Veterans Affairs Department (VA) and the Army. Kima’s greatest career accomplishment is receiving the Federal Employee of the Quarter Award for her leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. She earned an Executive Leadership Certificate from Graduate School, USA. You can connect with Kima on LinkedIn.

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