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The Health Implications of Social Belonging at Work

Research indicates that social belonging in the workplace is crucial for both employee well-being and organizational success. However, in modern organizations, the need for belonging is often left unaddressed as physical and virtual connections diminish.


Today we will explore the research foundation linking belonging to health and performance, why belonging matters so much for both individuals and organizations, and offer practical strategies and industry examples for cultivating a greater sense of social belonging at work.


Understanding the Research Foundation

Nearly two decades of research has established the importance of social belonging for physical and mental health. Studies have found belonging to be positively associated with stress management, self-esteem, life satisfaction, and well-being (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Conversely, a lack of belonging is linked to higher rates of anxiety, depression, and inflammation which can negatively impact health over time (Cacioppo & Hawkley, 2009). Neuroscience further confirms that social connection regulates many bodily processes through effects on the vagus nerve and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (Eisenberger & Cole, 2012). For organizations, a lack of belonging can undermine worker engagement, productivity, cooperation, learning and resilience (O'Reilly et al., 2014; Walton et al., 2012).


This research provides a clear foundation for why belonging should be a strategic focus for businesses seeking to promote thriving cultures. Individuals need belonging just as much as they need food, water and shelter. When it is lacking, both health and performance suffer in measurable ways. For organizations, cultivating belonging can boost the bottom line by creating a context where people naturally bring their best and most innovative selves to work each day.


Why Belonging Matters at Work

While the research foundation highlights belonging's health impact, it is also fundamentally important for organizations as they seek to adapt and innovate in a changing world. There are three core reasons why cultivating belonging should be a strategic focus for businesses:


  1. Engagement and retention. A greater sense of belonging leads to increased employee engagement which is known to reduce turnover (Bryant & Allen, 2013). In today's competitive labor market, high belonging can help attract and retain top talent.

  2. Creativity and problem-solving. Diverse groups with high belonging demonstrate superior problem-solving and creativity versus those with less connection (Phillips et al., 2006). Belonging fosters safe participation, idea-sharing and healthy debate pivotal to innovation.

  3. Resilience during uncertainty. Periods of change and uncertainty undermine belonging if not addressed. But when high, belonging acts as a buffer enabling groups to better adapt, learn from failures and sustain performance during challenges (Walton, 2014). This is invaluable in today's VUCA world.


By strategically focusing on belonging using evidence-based strategies, organizations can drive engagement, creativity and resilience vital for competitive advantage in any industry. The following sections explore specific approaches.


Cultivating Belonging in the Hybrid Workplace

As remote and hybrid work models proliferate post-pandemic, cultivating belonging will require new intentional efforts. Unless proactively managed, hybrid and remote arrangements can undermine the spontaneous social connections that naturally foster belonging in co-located teams. Leaders must consider the following strategies:


  1. Prioritize asynchronous communication norms. Establish guidelines promoting inclusive virtual engagement through welcoming chat culture, thoughtful replies, tag inclusion and follow through rather than assuming offline connections.

  2. Plan regular synchronous touchpoints. Schedule virtual coffees, team lunches or walking meetings using video to maintain real-time social opportunities for side conversations and non-work discussion vital for connection.

  3. Foster subgroups and communities. Encourage sub-teams, project groups and cross-functional communities to organically form around shared interests and goals. Rotate membership to broaden networks.

  4. Use technology deliberately. Leverage collaborative work platforms, group messaging and project management tools, but avoid overreliance on email. Rotate video on for meetings to maintain humanity.

  5. Support in-person interaction selectively. Consider periodic all-team offsites, regional meetups and travel subsidies for new hires, high performers or when productivity declines to reconnect distributed groups.


These strategies have paid off for companies like Dropbox. By establishing inclusive offline spaces and collaborative online behaviors, they've maintained high belonging despite transitioning 60% of roles to remote (Bersin, 2021). Hybrid approaches can work when proactively led.


Cultivating Belonging through Inclusion and Diversity

Beyond connectivity, cultivating belonging also requires inclusive, diverse and psychologically safe work cultures. Research shows belonging is maximized when individuals feel respected within diverse, equitable teams (Steffens et al., 2014). Leaders should champion the following strategies:


  • Train all levels in cultural competence, mitigating bias awareness and courageous conversation skills.

  • Establish employee resource groups representing varied identities for community, mentorship and representation in decision-making.

  • Audit policies, practices and cultural norms regularly using an equity lens, correcting areas undermining belonging for any groups.

  • Highlight diverse role models and histories internally through storytelling, celebrations and brand communications.

  • Encourage open dialogue on complex topics by modeling respect, understanding and bringing different perspectives together constructively.


Companies excelling here include Salesforce and Goldman Sachs. By promoting inclusion, addressing bias proactively and showcasing diverse backgrounds, they've created a sense of belonging for all which drives higher representation and retention rates industry-wide (Badal, 2016; Merhar, 2016). Authentic diversity and equity work is pivotal for cultivating maximum belonging.


Cultivating Belonging through Engaged Leadership

Ultimately, cultivating belonging at scale requires visible, engaged leadership setting the tone. Research shows belonging is highest when leaders foster the following:


  • Psychological safety. Leaders proactively correct disrespect, centering humanity over status or position. They invite vulnerability and diverse views fearlessly.

  • Fair process. Transparent, consistently applied processes and two-way communication build trust that everyone is in it together.

  • Meaning and purpose. Leaders help individuals see how their roles uniquely contribute to a higher organizational purpose or mission beyond themselves.

  • Autonomy and growth. Opportunities for challenge, learning on the job and growth in fulfilling careers signal long-term career prospects and commitment to development.


Companies excelling here include Southwest Airlines and Patagonia. By prioritizing psychological safety, empowering autonomy through coaching culture and infusing work with a greater purpose, their leaders have built exceptional cultures renowned for high belonging where people want to build long careers (Christensen, 2016; Slutsky, 2019). Engaged leadership is key to sustaining belonging at scale long-term.


Conclusion

Belonging should be a strategic focus area for organizations seeking to promote thriving cultures, health and sustainable performance in today's dynamic environments. While intuitive, research provides a clear scientific foundation for why belonging matters so much. Hybrid and remote arrangements necessitate new intentional efforts to cultivate the spontaneous connections that foster belonging. Leaders must champion diversity and equity, engaged leadership empowering growth and autonomy, as well as meaningful connectivity strategies tailored to their organizational context. When proactively cultivated, belonging acts as a competitive advantage driving engagement, innovation and resilience vital for business success in any industry. Overall, strategically focusing on this overlooked element could be transformative for cultures, people and performance outcomes in years to come.


References


  • Badal, S. (2016). Increasing diversity and inclusion at salesforce. Entrepreneur, 34-39.

  • Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological bulletin, 117(3), 497.

  • Bersin, J. (2021). To build belonging, design for hybrid work. Harvard Business Review, 1-5.

  • Bryant, F. B., & Allen, T. D. (2013). Compensation, benefits and employee turnover: HR strategies for retaining top talent. Compensation & Benefits Review, 45(4), 171-175.

  • Cacioppo, J. T., & Hawkley, L. C. (2009). Perceived social isolation and cognition. Trends in cognitive sciences, 13(10), 447-454.

  • Christensen, C. M. (2016). How southwest airlines scaled culture and thrived. Harvard Business Review, 94(7-8), 66-73.

  • Eisenberger, N. I., & Cole, S. W. (2012). Social neuroscience and health: neurophysiological mechanisms linking social ties with physical health. Nature Neuroscience, 15(5), 669-674.

  • Merhar, C. (2016). Goldman Sachs focuses efforts on diversity, inclusion. HR Magazine, 61(3), 24-25.

  • O'Reilly, C. A., Caldwell, D. F., Chatman, J. A., Lapiz, M., & Self, W. (2014). How leadership matters: The effects of leaders' alignment on strategy implementation. The Leadership Quarterly, 25(1), 104-113.

  • Phillips, K. W., Northcraft, G. B., & Neale, M. A. (2006). Surface-level diversity and decision-making in groups: When does deep-level similarity help? Group processes & intergroup relations, 9(4), 467-482.

  • Slutsky, J. (2019). Building a purpose-driven company culture at Patagonia. Business Insider, 1-4.

  • Steffens, N. K., Haslam, S. A., Schuh, S. C., Jetten, J., & van Dick, R. (2017). A meta-analytic review of social identification and health in organizational contexts. Personnel Psychology, 70(3), 603-645.

  • Walton, G. M. (2014). The new science of wise psychological interventions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(1), 73-82.

  • Walton, G. M., Cohen, G. L., Cwir, D., & Spencer, S. J. (2012). Mere belonging: The power of social connections. Journal of personality and social psychology, 102(3), 513.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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