Mental health in the workplace: Don’t underestimate the power of chit chat

HRD spoke to a workplace psychologist about the big impact of small talk

Mental health in the workplace: Don’t underestimate the power of chit chat

Office small talk was something we once took for granted.

From an offhand ‘how’re you going?’ with a colleague in the kitchen to discussing last weekend’s footie score in the lift, chit chat was embedded into our daily office life.

But in a world of increased working from home, it’s easy to go for hours with only your computer screen for company.

HRD spoke to Randstad’s workplace psychologist, Gareth Brabazon, who said losing that opportunity for accidental social interaction can have a devastating impact on our mental health.

“Social connections are one of the most protective mechanisms against depression and anxiety, more so than anything else,” he told HRD.

Research has found a link between belonging to a social group and reducing the likelihood of experiencing depression.

The thought process is often that those suffering depression are more likely to remove themselves from social groups, but actually, it goes both ways.

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Regular social connections, whether accidental or intentional, are significant factors for protecting our mental health.

For this reason, Brabazon said maintaining connection should be on the priority list for all HR professionals.

“Within organisations, we should be focusing on the question of how do we build those social interactions into our day?” he said.

“We need to be proactive about it – and realise the importance of chit chat.

“While it’s not work, it directly influences our ability to work effectively so it should be brought into the working day.”

Humans are naturally social creatures and our need to connect and be part of social groups is deeply embedded in our psyche.

With the rise of working from home, the focus has often been on increased productivity, less time commuting and added flexibility.

But at what cost?

In April, New Zealand’s government began carrying out research to track people’s mental and physical wellbeing.

The results found 31% of people experienced feelings of loneliness or isolation at times, and 8% reported depressive or anxiety related symptoms.

However, researchers were unable to estimate how much of this is due to the impact of the COVID-19 restrictions. 

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So how can HR professionals protect themselves and their employees from declining mental health?

For Brabazon, implementing intentioned social interactions and connections is a start.

That can come through scheduled virtual meet-ups, like a team huddle to start the week, but it’s important not to let opportunities for social chat slip into task oriented meetings.

Leaders and senior executives also take a pivotal role in leading by example.

By encouraging and prioritising those opportunities to connect, employees will also understand the importance of social interaction.

“Not everyone will need social connection in spades,” Brabazon said.

“But HR should be asking how we make sure leaders in our busines are facilitating social circles and understand that it leads to good performance.”

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