Providing your employees with a reliable social support system is a key way to ensuring they stay happy and productive



By Max Berry


The link between work stress and serious depression should be a concern for every small business owner, but the way to keep your employees happy and productive may be simpler than you think. A 2007 study conducted by researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center-and subsequently published in the American Journal of Public Health-found that, while five percent of those surveyed had struggled with serious depression, employees who felt socially supported at work were far less likely to be afflicted. Scheduling some social time for you and your coworkers away from the office is an excellent way to keep your own support system strong.


No Job is ‘Just a Job'
"Our work defines who we are. It defines you in a way you don't realize," says Dr. Emma Robertson-Blackmore, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester and one of the leaders of the medical center's study. With so much of a person's life spent at work, the dangers of feeling isolated or unsupported at the office are very real. Employees who are unhappy in their lives are going to be unhappy in their work. That equates to unproductive time at the office and an increased number of sick days, both of which spell bad news for office morale and a company's bottom line.



Employers are often leery of encouraging office fraternization, fearing it could become a distraction. However, an office friendship is far less treacherous a distraction than isolation or unhappiness. As Robertson-Blackmore puts it, "Having someone to blow off steam with is an instant pick-me-up."


And, while the office may not be the ideal place for blowing off steam, Robertson-Blackmore contends that, wherever the steam is released, being able to release it with coworkers is important. "If you tell a spouse or family member about something you're going through at work, obviously they'll listen to you," she says. "But they're not in your work environment. Your coworkers get where you're coming from."


Oh, The Places You Could Go
To both encourage personal bonds between coworkers and perhaps pave the way for more socializing outside the office, consider taking your team on regular field trips. Where you go will depend on who's going with you, but here are a few ideas.


The company picnic is a tradition for a reason. A picnic is informal and may make for a good first outing, since no one will be intimidated or inhibited by the surroundings. This goes doubly for employees' family members who, presumably, will be meeting for the first time. Picnics can also be potluck, which makes for an inexpensive day.


A formal sit-down dinner at a nice restaurant may be appropriate once coworkers have already had a chance to bond and are comfortable enough with one another to enjoy the more upscale environs. A nice dinner is also a good way to celebrate an achievement at work. Plus, employees with families may appreciate the chance to have a kid-free night out.


If you are looking to include the kids, an amusement park is a viable option. Many offer discount packages for large groups or corporate events. Note, however, that roller coasters and water rides aren't everybody's speed. Gauge your staff's enthusiasm before booking the group package.


A ball game is the perfect idea for the sports fans on your staff, and even the non-sports fans will likely be interested in taking in the atmosphere. Many companies also take part in office sports leagues. This can be excellent team-building for the right group, but a word of caution: Many of your employees aren't athletic, and many others may possess a heartier competitive streak than their coworkers. Both scenarios can lead to more division than unity amongst your staff. Tread carefully.


If you're looking to bring some culture into the equation, consider a concert or a play. Many people don't make time for cultural events on their own, and would appreciate the thought. This is another good option for a first foray into extra-office socializing since it eliminates the need for small talk at the start of the evening and gives coworkers an instant conversation starter once the show is over.


A Supportive Home
Still, for any of these activities to be successful, social support must begin inside the office. Robertson-Blackmore advocates open channels of communication between coworkers and, perhaps even more importantly, employees and managers. "It comes back to a supervisor, someone invested in what you do," she says. "Being aware of an employee's needs can make such a difference."


The workplace need not turn into an arena for venting personal problems, but the knowledge that a certain degree of moral support exists is important, as is making the conscious effort to foster that support. "The facts of a workplace play a role in the health and wellbeing of employees," says Robertson-Blackmore. "A supervisor or manager has to make the work environment as supportive as possible so that their staff will be as productive as possible."