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Jennifer Moss is a Harvard Business Review contributor, syndicated radio columnist and author of The Burnout Epidemic.

As the pandemic drags on, many white-collar workers are realizing that those seemingly banal water-cooler chats in the office during pre-pandemic times were surprisingly important to their mental health. Sure, it ate up valuable time chatting about the latest Netflix series and commiserating about commuting, but it was also a glue that helped us connect with co-workers. The lack of office socializing and collaboration is contributing to the weakening of our work relationships and increasing employee stress.

According to researchers Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter, lack of community is one of the root causes of burnout. “The area of community has to do with the ongoing relationships that employees have with other people on the job,” they wrote in a 2016 paper. “When these relationships are characterized by a lack of support and trust, and by unresolved conflict, then there is a greater risk of burnout. On the contrary, when these job‐related relationships are working well, there is a great deal of social support, employees have effective means of working out disagreements, and they are more likely to experience job engagement.”

Spending time with people at work also tends to decrease loneliness. People who spent five or more hours with co-workers in the past week were 1.7 times less likely to be lonely, according to a joint study from the GenWell Project and the University of Victoria that analyzed loneliness during the pandemic.

Hybrid work risks becoming the next ‘career killer’ for women

Belonging, along with well-being, is at the top of Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends survey as one of the most important human capital issues. According to the survey, “79 per cent of survey respondents said that fostering a sense of belonging in the work force was important to their organization’s success in the next 12 to 18 months, and 93 per cent agreed that a sense of belonging drives organizational performance – one of the highest rates of consensus on importance the company has seen in a decade of Global Human Capital Trends reports.”

During the pandemic, our research team found that employees were finding it hard to stay connected to their peers while working remotely. Eighty-five per cent said their well-being has declined in the pandemic and around 40 per cent of respondents said they struggled with being so disconnected from co-workers.

For some, working remotely is ideal and something they don’t want to give up. For others, it’s been a major challenge and has increased their sense of isolation. In this paradigm-shifting moment in work force history, the question becomes: Where is the middle ground? Whatever the answer, it’s clear that addressing the issue must be a priority.

Flexibility and agency remain one of the better solutions for preventing burnout. That suggests leaders consider that hybrid offerings are the best approach to promoting healthy relationships in the workplace.

The ideal is a scenario where teams come in at the same time and are out of the office at the same time. That can mean three days in and two days out. It can be once a week or month – even a few times a year if teams work in different parts of the country or even the world. The point is that investing in consistently reconnecting and finding time together as a team is critical to combatting loneliness at work. Technology can then be used to augment – versus replace – existing relationships.

In addition to getting people physically together, there are other ways leaders and managers can help nurture healthy relationships at work. Places can be created to connect on platforms such as Slack, Microsoft Teams or Google Meets to promote conversations on a range of non-work topics, from quilting to axe-throwing to parenting. These spaces shouldn’t be policed or monitored.

Leaders should make an effort to connect people across the entire organization. Passion projects that pull colleagues together to collaborate on assignments can energize individuals and teams. When employees have purpose and meaning at work, it is a huge contributor to well-being.

Feelings of inclusion drive what we call a “virtuous loop” that drives employees to help others in that group. This encourages people to work harder for their teams and for the whole organization. In contrast, individualism can lead to social isolation that actually causes changes in brain functionality, leading to diminished learning capacity, poor decision-making and an elevated threat response. Given that many organizations keep pushing the dates forward for a return to the office, it’s crucial that leaders act now to prevent further damage to the culture of their workplaces.

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