Psychological and social support comprises all supportive social interactions available at work, and refers to the degree of social and emotional integration and trust among co-workers and supervisors. It refers also to the level of help and assistance provided by others when one is performing tasks. Equally important are the workers’ perceptions and awareness of organizational support. When workers perceive organizational support, it means they believe their organization values their contributions, is committed to ensuring their psychological well-being and provides meaningful support if this well-being is compromised.
Why is Psychological and Social Support Important?
The more psychological and social support workers have, the more involved, committed and satisfied they are. Workers are happier and more productive, want to stay working with the organization for the long-term and are much more likely to ‘go the extra mile’ by engaging in organizational citizenship behaviours that help others.
For some organizations, the most important aspect of psychological support may be that it is especially helpful in protecting against traumatic stressors at work. When adequate psychological support is present, employees experiencing psychological distress in the workplace will be more likely to seek, and receive, appropriate help. They will be better equipped to stay safe and productive at work while they recover, and, if work absence is required, they will be more likely to have a quicker and more sustainable work return. To learn more about how to support workers with mental health issues, click here.
What happens when an organization lacks Psychological and Social Support?
Workers without psychological and social support are more likely to withdraw from work and have higher absenteeism rates. Conflict and staff turnover are more likely. Work stress may lead to physical symptoms (such as fatigue or headaches) or emotional symptoms (such as anxiety or burnout). This leads to increased costs, negative effects on productivity, and a greater risk of accidents, incidents and injuries.
Read more about burnout; what it is, how to prevent it and ways to recover.
An organization with good psychological and social support would be able to state that:
- the organization offers services or benefits that address worker psychological and mental health;
- workers feel part of a community and that the people they are working with are helpful in fulfilling the job requirements;
- the organization has a process in place to intervene if an employee looks distressed while at work;
- workers feel supported by the organization when they are dealing with personal or family issues;
- the organization supports workers who are returning to work after time off due to a mental health condition; and,
- people in the organization have a good understanding of the importance of worker mental health.
When adequate psychological support is available, employees experiencing psychological distress will be more likely to seek, and receive, appropriate help. Overall, they will be better equipped to stay safe and productive at work while they recover, and, in instances where a work absence is required, they will be more likely to have a quicker and more sustainable work return.
How to Improve Psychological and Social Support
Psychological and social support in the workplace is a big topic and it can seem daunting to address it. There are a few simple ways to begin to address these issues and make changes in your workplace. Remember change happens over time, and taking small steps in the right direction can make a significant impact over time.
When making changes to an organization, it’s important to first determine where the problems lie, if any, and find creative solutions to those problems. So, get a sense of your team’s needs and concerns when it comes to mental health. Here are some ways to do this:
- Circulate an anonymous survey;
- Create a suggestion box; and
- Add mental health check-ins to regular staff meetings.
Second, regularly and widely share information on mental health and psychological resilience, as well as communicate broadly on the internal processes and supports for those who may be struggling. This could be regular e-newsletters or webinars on topics surrounding psychological health, wellness and resilience, as well as internal and external mental health resources.
Third, engage with people leaders around creating psychologically safe work environments and providing their teams with psychological and social support. This starts with education and training, and also requires coaching and mentorship.
Finally, create a culture where it’s safe to discuss mental health concerns without fear of stigma, discrimination, or reprimand. Learn more about developing a positive organizational culture here. Have senior leaders share their commitment to mental health. If appropriate, having leaders share their personal or family experiences can be a powerful way to demonstrate personal value and commitment.
Psychological and Social Support and Workplace Policies
A culture of psychological and social support can, in many cases, be built into workplace policies and procedures.
If possible, provide benefits that support worker mental health. If your organization does not have a benefits program, consider public domain resources that you can share (e.g., mental health screening tools, supported self-management workbooks). Many free, evidence-based resources exist. Provide information on early intervention supports (e.g., crisis line numbers, community agencies/support groups, registered mental health professional services).
Have formal and informal accommodations for mental health issues. Formal accommodations are typically documented and ongoing and have medical reasoning, while informal are typically more time-limited or temporary. Consider creating return-to-work and stay-at-work policies and programs.
Have processes to address occupation-specific risks to psychological health, as well as risks to specific subgroups (e.g., members of the LGBTQ+ community; workers who are ESL/immigrants). MyWorkplaceHealth has specific LGBTQ+ resources including Videos and Blogs.
Put These Principles Into Action
Consider the areas of strength your workplace has in this area: what are you doing well, what can you continue doing, and how could you improve? Take the time to regularly check in with your workers to provide opportunities for input on potential challenges they are experiencing. Embedding questions into monthly check-ins makes it the norm, and this can also help leaders know if their direct reports are struggling early on, making effective support more likely.
Ensure workers know leadership’s investment by having the CEO speak to how workplace mental health aligns with the company mission and vision (for example, annually during Mental Health week), and ask that they share a bit about how mental health has personally impacted them. Ensuring top-down leadership support and commitment for mental health is important in helping combat stigma in the workplace. Sharing one’s personal commitment and reasons can help to build emotional engagement within the workplace.
Final Thoughts on Psychological and Social Support – Ongoing Improvement
Remember that it’s important to continually improve when it comes to psychological and social support in the workplace. So, it’s important to allocate necessary tools and supports (including time and coaching support) so your organization can succeed in psychologically supporting employees. Strive to eliminate stigma for those facing mental health challenges. This makes it more likely workers will reach out for help earlier. Early detection and treatment, in turn, reduces the impacts of mental health issues.
Finally, consider administering the free Guarding Minds at Work employee survey that provides a risk report of strengths and areas for improvement as they pertain to psychological health and safety and the National Standard. This can be a great place to start to obtain an overview of strengths and areas for improvement from workers’ perspective.
Psychological and Social Support is psychosocial factor 2 from the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety (PH&S) in the Workplace (CAN/CSA-Z1003-13/BNQ 9700-803/2013 – Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace). For more information, see also Guarding Minds at Work (Samra et al.).