Work Life Balance

What helping professions can teach us about the importance of social support

Importance of Social Support

Humans are social creatures at their core. Yes, even introverts need to interact with and receive care from others to live happily and in good health. The importance of social support was made abundantly clear at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. With billions of people around the globe isolating themselves to stay safe, it was those with the most social support who fared the best

In both the personal and professional spheres, having strong social support networks are key to achieving a satisfactory work–life balance and avoiding burnout. Knowing that you have people you can count on helps reduce overall stress levels and mitigate other risk factors.

People who work in occupations that provide health and education services to individuals and groups are at especially high risk for burnout and compassion fatigue. Helping professions include jobs in:

Keep reading to learn the signs of professional burnout, the benefits of social support and tips for expanding and maintaining your support network in the workplace.

What is job burnout?

Some level of stress is to be expected in most workplaces, but how do you know if it’s getting to be too much? According to the Mayo Clinic, job burnout is “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”

Some of the most common risk factors for job burnout are:

  • Unclear job expectations
  • Dysfunctional workplace dynamics
  • Lack of social support and feeling isolated
  • Having a heavy workload and long hours
  • Struggling with work–life balance
  • Feeling you have little or no control over your work

If left ignored or unaddressed, job burnout can have a detrimental impact on your quality of life. Possible consequences include:

  • Excessive stress
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Sadness, anger or irritability
  • Alcohol or substance misuse
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Vulnerability to illnesses

Now that you’re aware of the possible risks, you may have concerns about yourself or loved ones. Thankfully, there are several ways to reduce and prevent professional burnout. One of the most effective methods is to maintain and expand your social support network at work.

What is social support?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines social support as:

“The provision of assistance or comfort to others, typically to help them cope with biological, psychological, and social stressors. Support may arise from any interpersonal relationship in an individual’s social network, involving family members, friends, neighbors, religious institutions, colleagues, caregivers, or support groups. It may take the form of practical help (e.g., doing chores, offering advice), tangible support that involves giving money or other direct material assistance, and emotional support that allows the individual to feel valued, accepted, and understood.”

There is a long history of theory and research centered on the relationship between social support, health, happiness and longevity. Findings have repeatedly shown that people who receive ample psychological and material support from family, friends and colleagues are healthier than those who do not. People with high levels of social support are more resilient to stress and have fewer instances of trauma-induced disorders like anxiety, depression, morbidity, mortality and PTSD.

How to grow your professional social support network

Now that you know how important it is to have a strong support system at work, you may be wondering how to develop more personal connections on the job. Following the tips below could help you grow your social support network in any industry.

1. Build trust

The foundation of any good relationship is trust, and it takes time to develop that kind of connection with another person. Helping professionals are experts at building rapport, as it is essential to their work. A psychologist, for example, could not properly assess or treat their patients if they fail to make them feel safe and respected.

There are a lot of ways to increase trust amongst your colleagues and let them know you are someone they can count on, and vice versa. A successful relationship requires give and take from both participants. For example, you can try to:

  • Be honest and forthright with your feelings even when it feels vulnerable
  • Admit when you’re in the wrong
  • Follow through with your commitments
  • Show interest in other people’s lives
  • Ask for help when needed

2. Become an active listener

Being a good listener is a versatile and transferable skill that can be applied to any occupation involving interaction with people. Helping professionals use these skills all day long in order to better understand and care for their patients, clients or students. Geriatric social workers frequently cite the importance of actively listening to their elderly clients, who often feel their voices go unheard and unappreciated due to age bias.

When you get the chance, try applying these same active listening techniques in conversations with your fellow colleagues. Earning a reputation as a great sounding board or advice giver is a win-win for you and your workmates.

To be considered an active listener, you can’t just sit quietly with a blank face while someone is speaking. Focus on the following:

  • Notice non-verbal communication cues
  • Try not to plan your next statement while the other person is still talking
  • Turn towards the speaker, make eye contact and give short verbal affirmations
  • Don’t interrupt or jump to conclusions
  • Ask thoughtful questions

3. Show compassion

Showing compassion — to yourself and others — is sometimes much easier said than done. It can be difficult to demonstrate or express sympathy for people’s sufferings or misfortunes, even if we do indeed feel that way inside.

Making a conscious effort to be more compassionate doesn’t have to be complicated or time intensive. You can build habits into your everyday interactions and conversations with others, such as:

  • Practicing self-care and tending to your own needs first
  • Expressing sincere gratitude and appreciation when appropriate
  • Being proactive in connecting with people who might be going through a hard time
  • Giving someone the benefit of the doubt before judging
  • Forgiving yourself and others

4.     Develop cultural awareness

Each person’s perspective is shaped by their unique background, values, beliefs and upbringing. While shared experiences often bring people together faster, it is still possible to make deep and meaningful connections with people from other cultures.

Whether you’re a teacher striving to create an inclusive classroom environment or a sales manager trying to break into an international market, increasing your cultural awareness is sure to help you reach your goals.

Apply these tips from the APA to develop more cultural awareness in your relationships with friends, family, colleagues and clients:  

  • Learn by asking. People feel respected and valued when others show interest in learning about their perspectives.
  • Avoid insensitive comments and jokes, especially when you’re interacting with people you don’t know well or people from cultures you aren’t familiar with.
  • Make local connections. Engaging with social clubs, advocacy groups, religious institutions, civic groups, unions, colleges and universities are great ways to learn more about culturally diverse groups in your community.
  • Exchange stories. Storytelling and personal sharing are important communication techniques that transcend most cultures.
  • Respect language preferences. When engaging with people from a different culture, consider whether your materials or communication style need to be adapted. In some cases, it might be necessary to translate materials, invite an interpreter or adjust your vocabulary accordingly.  

Invest in others and reap the rewards of social support

It’s clear that you can learn about building social support networks from helping professionals of all kinds. Regardless of what industry you work in, applying some of the advice outlined above can help you create meaningful connections that can positively impact all areas of your life.

Learn more about how you can improve your work environment in our article “Expert insight for creating a positive work culture.”

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