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Tough times call for compassionate communication: How to communicate social support to colleagues

May 19th, 2020 -- Hannah Michelle...
Employees experience the shift in working remotely differently, depending on family status, socioeconomic status and physical location. Here's how to best adjust your communication to support all equally.
How to communicate social support to colleagues
By Angela Pastorek, Ph.D.

How are you coping with the sudden changes to how you get work done every day?

What do you wish your manager understood about your current work situation?

If we are fortunate enough to have the option, we are all experiencing the sudden switch to working from home full-time differently, depending on factors such as our family status, socioeconomic status and physical location:

  • Coworkers with children are trying to coordinate logistics of their children’s online activities while participating in multiple web conferences and completing their own daily project work…
  • Coworkers may not have space in their home that is quiet, private and conducive to work. This may be due to living in a multigenerational household, living with roommates, or simply not having a steady living situation...
  • Newer coworkers still “learning the ropes” of their jobs and workplace culture may be struggling to adapt to the isolation of suddenly working from home full-time and being physically separated from their team and manager. Long-tenured employees who have never worked from home may be struggling for many of these same reasons.
  • Coworkers of lower income or who live in more rural areas may not have high-speed internet at home or may struggle with poor connections when multiple family members are online for work and school simultaneously throughout the day….
  • Coworkers may also be worrying about the well-being of health-compromised family members at home – or far from home – making it more difficult to focus on work...

As a result of this sudden collision of work and home lives, it is important to recognize the very human struggles we are all facing in the midst of unexpected change and hardship.

A recent Gallup poll found that employees crave four qualities in communication from their managers and leaders: hope, trust, compassion and stability.

However, a March-April 2020 global survey of 2,700 professionals conducted jointly by tech companies SAP and Qualtrix, found that a whopping 40% of employees reported that no one from their company has asked them how they are doing since the beginning of the pandemic.

Additional findings from the SAP/Qualtrix research indicate employees are especially stressed right now:

  • 75% of people say they feel more socially isolated,
  • 67% of people report higher stress,
  • 57% are feeling greater anxiety,
  • 53% say they feel more emotionally exhausted

So, what can we do to help each other out during these challenging times, no matter what our job title, tenure, or profession?

Research from the field of communication identifies four different types of social support we can offer to signal to coworkers that we notice, we care, and we want to help.

While it may feel a little uncomfortable at first, making the intentional effort to communicate in this way helps build trust and opens new lines of communication with your team.

Additionally, the insights you gain from these conversations can also provide valuable insights for addressing employee needs and concerns.

4 types of socially supportive messages you can offer at work

  1. Informational support – Pointing coworkers to sources of information, such as a point person, website, or online form that would be helpful.
    • Example: “Let me send you the link to the webpage that details our new customer escalation process. And if you have any specific questions, Henry from Sales is a great resource. I’ll include his email address and phone number in the email as well.”
  2. Instrumental support – Helping a colleague complete a task, such as pitching in when you see a teammate is especially busy, or offering to submit a work-related form for a direct report who has poor internet connection while working from home.
  • Example: “I know you’ve got a lot going on with trying to finish implementation of the new SAP module on top of all the regular month-end reports coming up soon. I’ve got some time at the end of this week. I’d be happy to follow-up on those SAP support tickets so that you can get those reports done. Would that be helpful?”
  1. Emotional support – Offering words of encouragement that signal you recognize the feelings a coworker is dealing with - and potentially, the source of those emotions.
    • Example: “Nancy, I could sense on our team Zoom call the other day that you were frustrated that Ken wasn’t responsive to your concerns about customers’ frustrations with the new website. I know being on the front-line getting those customer calls every day can be tough.”
  2. Appraisal support – Offering insight on how others have handled similar situations or challenges.
    • Example: “I know it can be tough adapting to the sudden change to working from home full-time when you are still learning the ropes in your first job out of college. Jamie in Finance went through something similar when she got re-assigned to the New York team while working from the Kansas City office. It was a whole new world for her, too. Here are three things that worked well for her [share tips and examples]. I’d be happy to put you in touch with her as well – I think you’d really like her.”

It’s also important to note that a message can vary in terms of the level of social support depending on our word choice and care in tailoring the contents of the message to the other person’s needs.

3 examples of socially supportive messages that illustrate how the level of support can vary

  1. Low-support message: “It could be worse. My last company just furloughed a couple hundred people." This message acknowledges general difficulty but quickly shifts the conversation away from the speaker’s concerns and emotions.
  2. Mid-support message: “I can tell you’re stressed. We all are. Hang in there – things will get better soon.” This message is a slight improvement over the first because it is more focused on the other person and directly communicates that you have noticed their situation and/or emotions. Yet, this message stops short of acknowledging the specific reason for the person’s stress and pressures the other person to simply move past their current feelings and related stressors.
  3. High-support message: “I know you’ve got a lot going on with your kids at home and our weekly team project web conferences. You’ve done a great job keeping the team focused and working through some really tough challenges. I want to be sure you know I’m here to support you. How are you doing?” This message respectfully conveys that you have noticed both their personal situation, that you value this person’s contributions – and most importantly in terms of social support, that you value their personal well-being.

Offering meaningful socially supportive communication starts with noticing when someone is struggling, taking the time to engage, being thoughtful about word choice and then engaging in authentic conversation.

With a little practice, socially supportive communication can become a normal part of your day and a core trait of your communication as a coworker, manager and/or leader. In turn, you’ll develop deeper, more authentic relationships with colleagues and contribute to building a more inclusive organizational culture that make employees feel truly seen and valued.

Questions? Want to chat more? Interested in bringing a short webinar – or more comprehensive web conference workshop - on the topic of social support and communication at work to your team? Contact Angie Pastorek, Ph.D., program director and lead faculty member for the KU Edwards Campus graduate programs in organizational communication at apastorek@ku.edu.

Register for our free monthly, online Link and Learn webinars here.


About the Author: Angie Pastorek, Ph.D., is a program director and lead faculty member for the graduate programs in organizational communication at the University of Kansas Edwards Campus in Overland Park, KS. Prior to joining KU, Angie spent more than 10 years in a variety of corporate employee development and internal communication/consulting roles for companies including Deloitte and Siemens Healthcare.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020 - 10:45am