May 29, 2024

Cultivating a culture of belonging

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Mental Health Awareness Month is observed each year during May and is dedicated to shedding light on mental health illnesses and overall well-being in America. 

Amidst our day-to-day activities, the workplace is a significant contributor to our well-being. 

To better understand the importance of belonging in the workplace and its positive impact on employee wellness, the Office for Diversity and Inclusion interviewed Megan McMurray Hays, Ph.D., director of Education for the UAB Medicine Office of Wellness, to understand how wellness shows up at work and why inclusivity contributes to wellness.

The importance of belonging

"Belongingness is considered a fundamental human need, and research has demonstrated that a strong sense of belonging is positively associated with a person's overall well-being," explains Hays. 

Hays says that "belonging can contribute to mental health by helping people better manage stress and cope more effectively with difficult times in their lives." 

When individuals feel that they belong, there is a "decrease in loneliness and social isolation," both significant risk factors for mental and physical health. 

Hays states that several negative consequences can arise when an individual does not feel like they belong. 

This can include: 

  • Decreased job satisfaction

  • Reduced productivity

  • Poor mental health

  • Increased turnover rate

  • Decreased innovation and creativity

  • Impaired professional growth

  • Negative workplace culture

"Thwarted belongingness, referring to a state where a person feels a lack of connection or sense of belongingness with others, is also associated with an increased risk of suicide," says Hays.

Belonging in the workplace

"Belonging is critical for a positive work environment and it was included as one of the core components of the U.S. Surgeon General's ‘Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being," says Hays. 

Because of how much time an individual spends at work, "the relationships and connections formed there can make or break the workplace culture and community as well as employee experience."

When individuals feel that they belong, they are more likely to feel safe and comfortable expressing their own opinions, which promotes psychological safety. Hays also says that a sense of belonging in the workplace is linked to meaning and purpose in an individual's work. 

"Fostering a sense of belonging and connection at work is a win-win for employees and employers alike, as it enhances the wellbeing of employees while also improving the productivity and prosperity of organizations."

"Being well at work encompasses a holistic state of physical, emotional, and social wellbeing that allows individuals to perform their job effectively, feel a sense of purpose and fulfillment from their work, and feel like they are part of a community working toward a larger goal."

How to incorporate belonging 

According to a 2023 Work in America Survey, "nearly a third (30%) of workers feel their workplace does not support them because of an aspect of their identity," says Hays. This can include race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender.

So, what can we do to encourage belonging?

The Office for Diversity and Inclusion raises awareness of these areas by celebrating underrepresented groups and sharing educational information about them with the UAB community. 

For example, UAB Heersink School of Medicine staff now have a dedicated space for professional development and community with the quarterly Staff Grand Rounds. Ensuring consistent, meaningful opportunities for historically underserved groups is critical. These efforts promote inclusiveness and belonging. 

Hays also cites the importance of inclusive communications to those "new to their profession” and vulnerable groups. 

UAB Medicine Office of Wellness uses this same method to highlight observances such as Pride Month. Communications like these shed light on the importance of inclusivity, which can lead to a sense of belonging. 

Other tips to incorporate belonging

Hays also lays out a few ways an individual can lead initiatives of belongingness. 

  1. Initiate a social interaction
    "Initiating a social interaction can feel very vulnerable but taking the initiative to ask a coworker to lunch or to have a "walk and talk" meeting are examples of small acts that may have a big impact on belonging over time." 

  2. Prioritize teamwork and boost morale
    Hays recommends that leaders prioritize "creating time and space for people to work in groups or teams" centered around non-work connections. This could take place at an off-campus event where individuals can be their authentic selves. 

  3. Practice listening 
    "Everyone, but especially those in leadership positions, should ensure that people with different backgrounds and perspectives have a seat and a voice at the table.

If you would like to learn more about Mental Health Awareness Month or need additional support, please reach out to the UAB Medicine Office of Wellness or the UAB Employee Assistance Counseling Center (EACC).