Happy team sitting in chairs in circle

Fostering belonging in the workplace

Strategies for improving employee wellbeing

Written by Emma Mason AIMM
5 minute read
Happy team sitting in chairs in circle

The concept of belonging isn’t something we think about regularly. Yet it’s a fundamental human need, essential for emotional and psychological wellbeing.

As social creatures, we’re hard-wired to form connections and establish relationships with others, which helps us feel a sense of safety, security and comfort.

Whether it's our family, friends, community, or cultural group, feeling like we belong to a group provides us with a sense of identity, purpose and meaning.

In the workplace, this is no different. Whether it is to feel a part of a team or feel recognition from the input of our work, we all intrinsically want to experience a sense of belonging.

So how do we foster a sense of belonging within our workplace to improve employee wellbeing?

This concept was discussed at the latest AIM WA Sundowner ‘Fostering Belonging & Creating a Culture for Happiness,’ led by Happiness Co General Manager Robbie Figg, who further explored what role we have to help foster a positive workplace culture.

Happiness and mental health

Before leaders can understand how to make their team feel a sense of belonging in the workplace, we must first examine the concept of happiness.

As individuals, we all have diverse backgrounds, unique personalities and different expectations in life. Therefore, when it comes to defining happiness – there’s no set description.

Happiness is subjective and what brings joy and contentment to one person may not necessarily have the same effect on another.

As Mr Figg noted, happiness is based on our own thoughts and experiences and is a vital component of good mental health.

Some factors that impact mental health are beyond our control, such as neurological disorders or traumatic experiences.

However, for factors within our control, Mr Figg discussed the importance of making conscious lifestyle choices that positively impact your mental health and improve your overall wellbeing.

“We can make conscious choices around how we show up in relationships, how we deal with our vulnerable moments, how we deal with judgment, respect, passivity etc,” he said.

Yet although the approach towards mental health has improved in recent years, the stigmatisation around the topic is still apparent.

“For organisations that have employee assistance programs, only 5% use it,” Mr Figg said.

“A lot of us can admit we have been stressed, but not a lot of us can admit we feel depressed."

Even for those that can admit to feeling depressed, the stigma surrounding mental health remains strong.

Mr Figg puts this down to human nature rather than a lack of effort to try to reduce the stigma.

“It's still there because we don’t want to be caught out by our three universal fears; the fear of being judged, the fear of not being wanted and the fear of not being good enough,” he said.

Intent ‘vs’ impact

An important topic Mr Figg touched on was the notion of ‘intention’ versus ‘impact’ and highlighted that even with positive intentions, our actions may not always be perceived in the same way.

Intent is what you wanted to do; impact is the reality of your actions.

As an example, Mr Figg discussed how you may have the positive intention of helping someone at work and may ask if they need assistance, only to receive a negative response.

“Sometimes your intentions can receive different outcomes than expected,” he said.

“Although you were offering to help, this person may have reacted negatively due to thinking you were trying to take tasks away from them.”

Mr Figg noted that you can experience roadblocks when you are trying to foster a positive team culture through good intentions.

“Your team, organisation or legislation may put up a wall. You have got to push through or accept and try another way, don’t let one negative outcome put you off,” he said.

Mr Figg further discussed the importance of checking in with others and how simply asking someone how they are doing is not enough, we need to be intentional about listening and taking action to support others.

“There's a great saying in mental health, which is ‘if you're heard you start to heal’,” he said.

“I think that translates across every facet of life. If you feel like you're being heard, you might start to heal from resentment, or from an inability to get motivated, or whatever it might be.”

Belongingness ‘vs’ uniqueness

In terms of workplace culture, Mr Figg noted the concept of belongingness ‘vs’ uniqueness.

Belongingness, he explained, is the thread between people that creates a sense of culture and team cohesion, while uniqueness is authenticity and the ability to bring one's true self to the workplace.

“Organisations often prioritise one over the other, which leads to either assimilation or differentiation,” he said.

On one hand, when focusing on assimilation, organisations place a high value on culture and team belongingness, but a low value on uniqueness and individuality which leads to exclusion and lack of diversity.

“When organisations don’t do a lot to drive positive team culture and don’t really care about who you are, only what you do - that is exclusion,” Mr Figg said.

On the other hand, Mr Figg explained how organisations that place a high value on uniqueness and authenticity, have a challenging time threading them together with a shared purpose or set of values.

“This can lead to a lack of cohesion and a fragmented workplace culture,” he said.

Mr Figg emphasised that having diverse individuals is not enough; organisations need to listen and prioritise both belongingness and uniqueness, to create a positive team culture where individuals can be themselves, speak up and contribute.

“Ultimately we want to feel included … working together on shared values and purpose,” he said.

“You know where [as a team] you are going most of the time and you have a high sense of positive team culture,” he said.

Tips and strategies for fostering belonging

In terms of advice, Mr Figg offered these tips for individuals in the workplace to practise daily.

1. Bring everyone on board whenever possible to help eliminate exclusion
2. Provide feedback with genuine care
3. Practise compassionate leadership and management
4. Build a culture on the positives
5. Be intentional about inclusion, don’t just put it on posters

“A shared vision doesn’t matter, a shared purpose does,” Mr Figg said. “And that systemically could change the way we think about belonging.”

Parting thoughts

Mr Figg closed his presentation with some parting thoughts by the founder of Happiness Co Julian Pace.

“Live the way you’d like to be remembered,” he said.

“Every single opportunity that you have … Those moments. You leave a legacy every time.

“So as much as we can, live the way we would like to be remembered and think about belonging and fostering a positive team culture.

“We will have way more positive outcomes in society if more interactions lead with these thoughts.”