What do I say? How to communicate social support, initiate authentic conversations with coworkers during turbulent times

Employees are experiencing today’s tumultuous environment differently, depending on race, family status, socioeconomic status and physical location. Here are some thoughts on how to communicate with humility and empathy in your everyday workplace conversations.

Stressed adult - how to communicate in turbulent times

What do you wish your coworkers and managers understood about the full range of stressors in your life today and every day?

The coronavirus pandemic and the deaths of George Floyd and others are surfacing many issues that our workplaces have managed to avoid in the past.

Depending on factors such as our race, family status, socioeconomic status and physical location, we are all experiencing the current cultural reckoning differently:

  • Black colleagues are having to navigate troubling comments, questions and emotions from White coworkers unequipped with how to respond to societal-level demands for change arising from the death of George Floyd.
  • Managers and leaders are grappling with how to meaningfully address employee calls for a more responsive and equitable workplace around issues of both race and work-family needs.
  • Coworkers with children are trying to coordinate logistics of their children’s online schooling while participating in multiple web conferences and completing their own daily project work.
  • Coworkers in lower paying positions may not have room in their home for dedicated space that is quiet, private and conducive to work. They may be living in a multigenerational household, living with roommates, or simply not have 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.
  • Due to COVID-19, 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, combined with a cultural reckoning long in the making, it is important to recognize the very human struggles we are all facing in the midst of these turbulent times.

Managers and leaders have a vital role to play here. 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 online anti-racism resources or a trusted HR contact person for questions about working from home.
  • Example: “You are asking some good questions about why people are so upset. It’s important that as White people, we make the effort to educate ourselves about issues of race and injustice. There are a couple of great resource lists online to help us all learn more and do better around issues of race in the workplace. I’ll send you those links, and would be happy to talk with you about any questions the information sparks for you.”
  1. 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: “Jasmine, I could sense on our team Zoom call the other day that you were frustrated that as our manager, Ken dismissed your concerns about how some of our other White teammates were talking about the recent protests. Hearing those types of comments from coworkers you thought were your friends is traumatic and I could tell you were upset. What would you like me to do to help address this? What would you be comfortable with?”
  1. 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.

Here are three 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 with all the changes affecting everyone right now. It’s a difficult time.”

  • 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. It is also important to note that this type of generally supportive, mid-support statement can fail to convey your intended level of support in specific situations. For example, in the context of the deaths of George Floyd and others, your Black team members and White allies committed to issues of racial justice are likely expecting you to acknowledge their grief and frustration, to ask how they are doing, and what they need from you as the team’s leader during this time. Failing to recognize that need and initiate a larger team conversation can be hurtful, as it conveys you either aren’t aware or aren’t comfortable leading these important team conversations.

3. High-support message: “I know you’ve got a lot going on with your kids at home, our weekly team project web conferences – and in relation to the recent death of George Floyd, working with your team to address their experiences with racism in the workplace, while also being concerned for your family members who work in law enforcement. It’s a lot to navigate. You’ve done a great job helping your team work through some really tough conversations. I want to be sure you know I’m here to support you. How are you doing – and how can I help?”

  • 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 being mindful of the situational context.

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, which will 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.

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