How community spirit can combat workplace stress

Megan Thompson · April 20, 2022

It is apt that this year’s theme for Stress Awareness Month is ‘Community’.

The Covid lockdowns and isolation periods resulted in a loss of interaction with our fellow human beings. Although Covid-19 has largely disappeared from the news bulletins, the virus is still as virulent as ever. For many, such as those people who are immuno-compromised, the loneliness continues.

Living without a sense of community can be detrimental to mental health and a major contributor to stress. This applies to our work community, as well as our family, social networks and where we live.

Why community became this year’s Stress Awareness theme

The Stress Management Society (SMS), the organisers of the awareness month, which has been held every April since 1992, explain why they chose Community as the theme. “We have chosen this theme because lack of support can cause loneliness and isolation, which in turn lowers people’s wellbeing, impacts mental health and can lead to mental illness. Social isolation is an important risk factor for both deteriorating mental health and suicide.”

It is worth considering what is meant by community, and the SMS offers a neat definition: “Community is much more than just a group of people. It’s about having a sense of belonging and connection to others and feeling supported and accepted by them.”

The community of work

While the pandemic lockdowns caused the heartache of being away from friends and extended families, it also meant people became isolated from their workplace peers.

We spend so much time at work with our colleagues. The Association of Accounting Technicians calculated that British workers spend an average of 1,795 hours every year at work, adding up to an astonishing 3,515 full days over the course of their lifetime.

Is there a spirit of community in the workplace? Jeff Haden, Contributing Editor at Inc Magazine, believes that community trumps culture.

He argues that culture is about the company, and how employees fit within it. On the other hand, community is the manifestation of the people within it, guided by the company values. A community allows employees to feel a sense of belonging, that they’re part of something larger than themselves, which gives meaning, not just to their work, but to their lives as a whole as well.

While the CEO may not be able to maintain a community of 400, managers and team leaders can guide smaller communities within the larger context, all based on the same philosophies and guiding values.

A thought-leadership editorial in the Harvard Business Review entitled ‘Rebuilding Companies as Communities’ makes similar points: “Individualism is a fine idea. It provides incentive, promotes leadership, and encourages development—but not on its own. We are social animals who cannot function effectively without a social system that is larger than ourselves. This is what is meant by ‘community’—the social glue that binds us together for the greater good.

“Community means caring about our work, our colleagues, and our place in the world, geographic and otherwise, and in turn being inspired by this caring.”

Being at the same location at the same time with other people does not necessarily make it a community. But seeing as we spend so much time together, it would be beneficial for all of us if a positive community spirit can be developed. So, how can this be achieved?

The Mental Health charity, Mind, has some useful suggestions on positive actions that can build a community at work. It suggests:

  • Encouraging and supporting a culture of teamwork, collaboration and information-sharing
  • Promoting positive behaviours to avoid conflict and ensure fairness
  • Ensuring robust policies on bullying and harassment are in place and well publicised
  • Encouraging exercise and regular social events to boost staff health, teamwork and mental wellbeing, such as lunchtime walking clubs or ‘Lunch and Learn’

A community spirit can also be developed by encouraging volunteering and an active programme of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) events. A good turn is nectar for the soul, and group volunteering activities work wonders for team building.

It is important to include team members who are working remotely or are part-time. The fad for team Zoom calls may have faded, but communication is still vital. We need to check in with each other even if it is on Teams chat or WhatsApp groups.

Alongside encouraging bonding and mutual support, there is still an imperative to be vigilant when it comes to stress and mental health

Looking for signs of stress

The challenge for any organisation is to spot the signs when someone is struggling. Most people tend to suffer in silence and will disguise their anguish. When someone is finding it difficult to cope with excessive pressure or stress, there are often changes in work performance and behaviour.

Sometimes there may visible clues such as emotional outbursts, crying, lateness and combative or withdrawn behaviour.

You may spot changes in the way people work. These might include inconsistent performance, uncharacteristic errors, loss of motivation, increased time at work and even holiday allocation going unused.

It is incumbent on managers and HR professionals to be vigilant, but mental health issues can so often be missed.
WeThrive has a dedicated wellbeing and mental health survey which identifies where your people are getting their psychological needs met and specifically what may be preventing them from meeting other needs in a healthy, balanced way. Created with expertise from GPs, practical psychology and psychotherapy, the survey provides feedback directly to individuals. This includes actionable plans and suggestions.

Taking action to identify employees who may be struggling with their mental health, along with actively supporting a culture of collaboration and teamwork, will help create a genuine community in the workplace. There has never been a more pressing time for businesses to focus on this. We have been isolated for too long.