How support groups enhance workplace wellbeing

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted workplace communication. Employee support groups, ideally managed by a trained expert, can help workers deal with workplace issues and cultivate a sense of emotional connection.
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Alice, a senior manager at a creative agency, loved her job. But sometimes, the deadlines and client pressures would be so high that she’d feel exhausted and unable to cope. She broached the subject to the company Vice-President, but he merely told her that everyone else was in the same boat as her.

On top of that, Alice didn’t have any work friends to confide in. The constant stress and never-ending workload ultimately drove Alice to a point of no return. Utterly burnt out, she left the job, blaming herself for not being “tough enough”.

Could the situation have been salvaged if the team had rallied behind Alice and others like her in an open, empathetic, and supportive setting? Probably.

Peer support groups have proved extremely effective in providing emotional support and resources to stressed-out workers, or those struggling with issues around personal performance, office relationships, or work-life balance.

Such groups have existed for decades, but they are coming back into the spotlight in the post-Covid workplace.

What are workplace support groups?

Workplace support groups are basically teams of employees who meet to share problems and experiences in a supportive and non-judgmental setting. These sessions are conducted by trained facilitators who encourage team members to share stories or insights from their own experiences to help others overcome similar challenges.

Research has shown that social support at work can act as a buffer against ‘bad stress’, and improve mental health and work-related abilities.

Conversely, lower levels of perceived social support (as in Alice’s case) may lead to worse outcomes for people with depression, and perhaps even schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders.

Most of us have heard of peer support groups helping people with problems like alcoholism, drug abuse, or chronic diseases like AIDS or cancers. Support groups have indeed helped millions of people – and they also fill an important gap at the workplace.

The last two years have seen social bonds at the workplace – office friendships, watercooler conversations, informal mentoring and knowledge exchanges – fraying due to remote work. Companies can help people recreate and maintain these connections by creating support groups that address common challenges such as burnout, loneliness, mental health problems, lack of sleep, inadequate self-care, and other issues.

When conducted in a sensitive and confidential environment, support groups can be tremendously helpful in improving inter-team morale and relationships and surfacing hidden problems that could go on to become major crises later.

Benefits of workplace support groups

They make difficult conversations easier

Support groups allow difficult conversations between colleagues to take place in a positive and non-judgemental setting. Having these conversations without the fear of backlash enables misunderstandings to be addressed with mutual empathy and respect.

They provide a web of social support

By being around peers who have been in similar circumstances, people feel more emboldened to speak their minds rather than suffer in silence. Isolation is one of the biggest barriers to sufferers seeking help, and therefore, these groups can help people to take the first step to address the issue.

They are a preventive measure to head off issues

Support group members become ‘first responders’ who look out for each other. Under the facilitator’s guidance, they can help their fellow members access professional help sooner rather than later: whether it is financial counselling, childcare or relationship assistance, psychotherapy, or other forms of support.

They improve wellbeing

Helping one’s peers (and receiving help from them in return) improves one’s mood, self-esteem, and confidence. Group members also tend to form strong relationships with each other, which is great for their overall wellbeing.

They are not complicated to organise

Setting up support groups is neither expensive, nor does it use up a lot of space or time. Meeting an hour every week in a shared space – an office cafeteria or a meeting room – is usually enough.

How to set up support groups

Here are some things to ponder before setting up support groups.

1. What are the themes or issues you want to discuss?

Each group needs to focus around a specific theme. Keeping groups too generic will prevent focused and productive discussions.

2. How should these groups be structured?

The groups can be created for short or long-term periods. They can also be open (i.e., everyone can join) or closed (restricted) in terms of their membership. Both choices will depend on the topic and the preferences of the intended participants.

3. Who will facilitate them?

Support groups should ideally have an expert as a facilitator. Trained experts (a psychologist, for example) can manage the group dynamic and steer discussions in a sensitive and solution-oriented manner, making sure no one is left out of the process.

4. How can you ensure total confidentiality?

Confidentiality is the number one priority with workplace support groups, hence all participants must be sensitised to protect and maintain each other’s right to privacy and dignity at the workplace. If certain topics are too sensitive or confidential for a group setting, consider having smaller groups or one-on-one sessions instead of larger groups.

5. How can you encourage people to join?

Support groups cannot work in isolation – they must be part of a larger organisational culture that stresses health, emotional wellbeing, self-care, transparency, kindness and so on.

After all, you cannot force employees to join these groups. Another thing that helps is getting leaders on board to advocate for these groups among their teams.

Support groups can be a great tool for organisations to improve the health and wellbeing of their people. They also address the fundamental need for community that all humans have – the need to share, listen, and empathise with those around us.

Edited by Affirunisa Kankudti

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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