Two cappuccinos and one cold brew together symbolizing belonging in the workplace

Belonging in the Workplace: What It Means and Why It Matters

When Caitlin Satterfield returned to work after giving birth, she was conflicted: on the one hand, she wanted to be home with her son; on the other, she wanted to continue to perform at work. This, coupled with loneliness and a sense of overwhelm, made her feel like she didn’t belong.

The experience led her to study belongingness, particularly as it relates to new working moms. “For new mothers, feeling like you belong can be the difference between surviving or thriving in the transition back to work,” she wrote.

What is belonging?

For Caitlin, belonging means satisfying a need to be seen, accepted, and valued. It’s feeling connected and respected.

Psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary define belonging as having a sufficient number of lasting, positive, significant relationships maintained through frequent and pleasant interactions. You feel a sense of belonging to groups, places, and organizations that put you in regular contact with people you like and care about (and vice-versa). 

They note that belonging is different from mere affiliation, which means frequent interactions, but with “nonsupportive, indifferent others.” Whereas belonging positively impacts physical and mental health, affiliation has little impact on wellbeing and does not satisfy our need for connection.

Why is belonging important in general?

Belongingness is a basic human need—it comes just third in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, right above physiological and safety needs. According to Baumeister and Leary, much of what people do is a means to fulfill their desire to belong.

Being deprived of a sense of belonging literally makes people sick and can cause a wide range of behavioral problems, from traffic accidents to suicide. Research shows that students who don’t feel a sense of belonging to their university are more likely to feel depressed or anxious. Loneliness, a byproduct of not belonging, is associated with lower immune responses and elevated cortisol levels. 

Why is belonging important in the workplace?

At university and the office, a sense of belonging makes individuals more resilient and inspires them to both perform better and challenge themselves more.

At work, belonging is linked to increased retention and productivity. A study showed that a sense of belonging in the workplace leads to a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% reduction in turnover risk, and a 75% decrease in employee sick days. (For a 10,000-person company, these numbers represent over $50 million in annual savings.)

The same research suggests that the opposite of belonging—feeling left out—can cause employees to sabotage themselves and their teams. 

How to create a sense of belonging 

Most experiments for fostering belonging have been done at universities. They have typically focused on mitigating “belonging uncertainty,” i.e. concerns about not belonging, as a way to motivate and retain students underrepresented on campuses.

Belonging uncertainty is dangerous because it makes underrepresented students perceive everyday challenges as evidence that they don’t belong. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: when black students think they don’t belong, they don’t join student groups or reach out to prospective mentors, which makes it harder for them to succeed. As researchers explain, “worries about belonging, rooted in a history of social disadvantage, can perpetuate racial inequality in higher education.”

Fortunately, simple social-belonging interventions, such as having freshman students read stories and advice from older diverse students about university challenges and how they coped, have proven to help minority students overcome impostor syndrome and succeed during and after college.

Researchers found that those who took part in one such intervention were, up to eleven years later, enjoying greater career satisfaction, professional success, psychological well-being, and community involvement than those who hadn’t.

Fostering a sense of belonging in the workplace

HR tech companies like BetterUp, which offers online coaching for employees and companies, and CultureAmp, which helps companies collect, understand and act on employee feedback, are driving the discussion on workplace belonging. Their recommendations include:

1) Being intentional about inclusion

Of all the things companies can do to become more inclusive, the most basic is creating a culture in which individuality is noticed and valued. Supporting employees in creating communities around a shared identity and training managers to lead diverse teams are also effective strategies.

2) Establishing mentorship programs

Companies that want to engage and retain diverse talent should provide them with mentorship and sponsorship opportunities. Research by the Center for Talent Innovation shows that effective sponsorship is critical to engagement, retention, and advancement of diverse talent. 

3) Sharing stories of senior employees

If stories from senior students can help freshmans cope with everyday challenges, stories from senior employees may also help new hires succeed. Companies can test this by incorporating simple social-belonging interventions to their onboarding processes.

4) Creating opportunities for employees to bond

Friendships at work are an important aspect of belonging. To encourage team members to get to know one another on a personal level, companies can invest in team-building activities and retreats. If the team is remote, they can use apps like Donut to pair up team members for virtual coffee dates in addition to getting everyone together in person at least once a year.

5) Tracking engagement and belonging  

Whether through an employee experience platform like CultureAmp or a simple survey, companies should track employee engagement and belonging. To assess belonging, they can turn to psychologists Gregory Walton and Shannon Brady‘s six questions of belonging, which can be found here.

Helping people belong

Humans are driven by a fundamental need to belong, a need that extends to the teams and the organizations we are affiliated with. Whether or not we connect with our teammates and feel seen and valued by managers has a direct impact on our motivation, productivity, and commitment. Companies can’t afford to overlook the importance of belonging if they want to attract and retain productive, motivated, and dedicated employees. 

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