Deep dive: Social Support and resilience: You should never walk alone!

I had delivered ‘resilience training’ before I came to Robertson Cooper and thought I knew what resilience was – it was all in the mind, right?  It’s all about how you, as an individual, think about the things that happen to you – do you overly blame yourself when things go wrong? Do you think everything is bad in your life when things go wrong? Do you think you will never be able to change things, that this is it now forever? What is known in psychology as having an optimistic attributional style.

So, it was a great joy to start working with the expansive and comprehensive model of resilience that has been developed by Robertson Cooper.  I had known it all along somewhere in my mind; resilience is much more than just how we think about things, of course it is important but it’s not the whole story and there are actually much simpler strategies that individuals (and organisations) can deploy to support employee resilience rather than trying to shift the way in which people think

The model of resilience at Robertson Cooper has identified 4 strategies that people use to bounce back from adversity and setbacks and despite me asking Prof. Ivan a thousand times which one is more important, he won’t concede that any are more or less important than the others.  He’s the Professor so I will take his word for it; all the resilience strategies count and that is the joy of the broad reach of the Robertson Cooper resilience model and for an organisation looking to develop resilience in their employees – it doesn’t have to be all about changing mindsets. 

One of the resilience strategies that I feel gets most neglected in our busy, technology-lead, always on work cultures is what we term ‘Social Support’ and it is so basic that it seems laughable, so obvious it is disconcerting but one which almost all organisations have gradually eroded over time.

I like to use the example of the Police to demonstrate the point.  There was a time long long ago when there used to be bars that officers would go to after their shift had finished. In these bars, they would talk about what they had experienced on their shift, and yes, maybe they had a few drinks and (god forbid) some fun.  In old fashioned terms, this was known as unwinding. There is a certain joy in speaking to colleagues about the unique challenges that are thrown up by your particular specialism of work; they just get it instantly. And this differs from talking to a friend or partner, because with them you always must add in extra layers of detail, so the story makes sense to them.  And because of that, we often actually can’t be bothered to take some of the smaller things we experience at work into the home – it literally takes too long to explain our everyday troubles, and would they get it anyway?

These police bars have long gone in most areas and OK, fine, maybe they wouldn’t work in today’s workplaces but did we ever stop to consider if these sorts of social settings had any health benefits or why they existed in the first place?

If you have you ever organised a work social event, you have probably all made an agreement that you will go out but you will not talk about work.  Yet you will also know what happens when you do go out – yes, you all end up talking about work!  But why? My view is that it is because we need to; we need a place to unwind and get some perspective on our everyday work issues from people who understand. 

So, it seems to me that the bars in the police service had a very important function in the smooth operation of an organisation, they were there because humans need this social outlet, especially when we have been under high pressure and with big demands.  We need a space to gather, connect and share our worries. It is all very well us having mental health campaigns to say ‘Speak up’ but where and when can people do that in an organic way in our modern workplaces? Where are the opportunities in the design of our organisations to have the casual time to be able to connect and chat with our colleagues? 

I can already hear you thinking that it sounds like I am advocating for people to sit around chatting all day or going to the pub every night but that is very far from the truth. Indeed, what I am advocating is that we consider some of the very basic requirements for wellbeing and developing resilience and apply that to our workplaces of today.  Few organisations are going to introduce a subsidised bar, but what are the other options to give people permission to develop their resilience and maintain their wellbeing by being given opportunity to socially support one another? This is especially pertinent for remote workers

  • What about free time on the agenda of a meeting?
  • Regular lunches together?
  • Away days built into the calendar?

A physical space within the built environment where employees can gather with colleagues to unwind?  One where they have the permission to take time out and connect socially?

What is the modern alternative to the subsidised police bars?  

Opportunity for casual gatherings have been almost universally stripped out of organisational life, I have even heard of schools without a staff room which really makes me question how these teachers get to learn and gain support from one another and reduce stress

By stripping out this part of the culture, there may be immediate cost savings but perhaps there is more to consider than just the immediate impact – what is the cost as time goes on? More than likely there are unintended costs to the wellbeing of employees in not having opportunity to gain social support from their colleagues in terms of absence and stress.  There is some evidence starting to appear that a lack of social support in our workplaces is resulting in less engagement, less productivity and lower retention levels. 

We bounce back quicker when we can talk, when we have some social support, when we feel connected to our fellow humans – bouncing back is resilience. So, what I am asking is, do your employees have opportunity to connect with their colleagues?  What can you do at an organisational level to set your people up to use this vastly under-utilised and under-valued resilience strategy?

A lack of social support has implications for our workplaces: 

    • Lonely workers say they are less engaged, less productive and report lower retention rates
    • They are twice as likely to miss a day of work due to illness and five times more likely to miss work due to stress
    • 12% of lonely workers say they believe their work is lower quality than it should be
    • Lonely workers say they think about quitting their job more than twice as often as non-lonely workers
    • Remote workers are more likely than non-remote workers to always or sometimes feel alone  
    • Source: Cigna Loneliness Index 2020

The Social Support resilience strategy is just one of four equally important resilience strategies in the Robertson Cooper model for resilience.  Our training and personalised reports offer your employees the chance to explore all four resilience strategies and take control of their own wellbeing.

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