You say it best when you say anything at all.

Reaching out
I was struck recently by some new Canadian research that shows that being isolated or ostracised at work may be more harmful than being harassed (O’Reilly et al., 2014). The researchers found that being ostracised at work was generally considered by most people as being less harmful and more socially acceptable than being harassed. However, their research showed that the negative impact, particularly in terms of wellbeing and employee turnover, was more severe for those ostracised and isolated compared to those experiencing direct harassment. They also found that feeling ostracised was more common than feeling harassed.

If you have ever felt ignored at work, or not part of the "in group", you will recognise that it leaves you feeling that you don’t belong, or worse that there is something wrong with you. If this treatment is deliberate I believe it is a form of bullying. Perhaps more frequently it is something that happens because someone is seen as different and they are gradually ignored and isolated? If you believe this might be happening do you intervene? The established bystander apathy effect might be informative here. In fact this effect suggests that the larger the organisation or office environment then the less likely it is that someone will intervene to support a troubled colleague (Abbate, 2014). So perhaps you suspect a colleague feels a bit isolated but you hope or assume that someone else will offer support?

If isolation occurs more frequently to individuals from minority groups in your organisation you have a diversity problem. This is quite likely to be born of ignorance, whether it is based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or any other difference. There may be the need for broad diversity training or awareness raising, which can be beneficial when well designed and properly integrated into the organisational climate (Bezrukova et al., 2012). However, this alone will not be sufficient unless individuals are prepared to intervene when they believe a colleague is becoming isolated.

Isolation at work is likely to be particularly difficult for anyone who is already experiencing mental health problems. There can be a tendency to stay clear of people we think might be in a fragile state mentally. We are afraid we say the wrong thing and exacerbate any problems they may be experiencing. This outcome is possible, but it is much more likely that well intentioned words will have a positive impact. There is good advice available that can help if you are particularly concerned about saying the wrong thing (e.g. from the anti-stigma campaign Time to Change).

A kind word to someone who you believe could be feeling isolated will almost certainly benefit them but it is also likely to have a positive impact on you. There is growing evidence that those who undertake acts of kindness benefit in terms of their own emotional experience and wellbeing (Lyubomirsky and Layous, 2013). Hopefully your reasons for checking on the wellbeing of a co-worker will be primarily altruistic, but it helps to know this is likely to be good for you as well as them!

So as we prepare for the festive break perhaps it’s a good time to lift your head and consider whether any of your co-workers might be feeling isolated or ostracised. Imagine yourself in their shoes and chose a moment when you can speak to them privately. Just ask how they are doing. You don’t need to tie yourself in knots preparing a speech! However, be ready to say that you are a bit worried about them and why. They may just say they are fine but not mean it, so stick with it until you are confident your concerns are misplaced. It is worth thinking about where you can suggest they get support from if they do indeed seem to be finding things difficult. You might feel that you can offer to talk to someone on their behalf (e.g. their line manager or HR), if they don’t feel able to do this them self. You don’t need to get too drawn in but perhaps your intervention is the start of helping someone move into a much healthier and happier state. Why wouldn’t you do that?

References

Abbate, C.S., Boca,S., Spadaro, G. & Romano, A. (2014). Priming Effects on Commitment to Help and on Real Helping Behaviour. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 36, 347-355.

Bezrukova, K., Jehn, K.A. & Spell, C.C. (2012). Reviewing Diversity Training: Where We Have Been and Where We Should Go. Academy of Management Learning and Education, 11(2), 207-227.

Lyubomirsky, S. & Layous, K. (2013). How Do Simple Positive Activities Increase Well-being? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(1), 57-62.

O’Reilly, J., Robinson, S.L., Berdahl, J.F. & Bankl, S. (2014). Is Negative Attention Better Than No Attention? The Comparative Effects of Ostracism and Harassment at Work. Organization Science. http://dx.doi.org/10.1287/orsc.2014.0900

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