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Generation Lonely: How to Foster Social Belonging for Gen Z Workers

There’s a lot of conversation right now about how the pandemic has impacted workers across the country. However, younger employee populations, particularly members of Gen Z, are currently exhibiting more signs of mental and social health issues than older generations.

After graduating college and entering the workforce amidst the pandemic, Gen Z hasn’t been shy about making mental health and wellness one of their top priorities in accepting job offers. In October 2022, LinkedIn reported that 66% of Gen Z employees want a company culture built on mental health and wellness. Given that Gen Z will represent 27% of the workforce by 2025, companies are starting to take mental health in the workplace more seriously than ever before.

But there’s another area of well-being that Gen Z workers are especially grappling with on the heels of the pandemic—social wellness and connection.

The pandemic forced many Gen Z employees to shift how they connect with friends and coworkers. While they're naturally drawn to communicate online with friends and stay up-to-date on what’s going on in the world, Gen Z—unlike baby boomers, Gen X’ers, and even millennials—hasn’t been able to experience the same level of in-person camaraderie with coworkers in remote or hybrid work environments.

On top of building mental health and financial struggles, Gen Z employees also feel a heavy disconnect and lack of belonging at work, particularly when it comes to opportunities for advancement and mentorship. This, in turn, increases instances of workplace loneliness for younger employees, which can translate to lowered performance, creativity, and decision-making.

What Is Workplace Loneliness?

Workplace loneliness is the feeling that one's social needs are not being met at work and is often measured on a scale between emotional deprivation and social companionship.

Emotional deprivation is defined as a failure to emotionally connect with others, leading to a drop in workplace morale and performance.

Social companionship is one’s connection to and engagement with a group of people, which has been shown to positively impact organizational commitment and retention.

So how can employers come up with ways to bridge the gap between workplace loneliness and mental and social fulfillment for Gen Z employees? We spoke with Turiya Gray, co-host of the HR unConfidential podcast, to get her take on what social wellness and belonging mean to Gen Z employees and how to foster both.

Gen Z Views Workplace Belonging Differently

Belonging is a basic human need to feel accepted as we are. And when it comes to the workplace, belonging is absolutely crucial for professional and personal development.

When employees feel a sense of belonging, they are proven to be more engaged, productive, and satisfied at work. However, the pandemic exacerbated feelings of isolation and loneliness among workers, particularly members of Gen Z.

According to a 2021 study from the Associated Press, nearly half of Gen Z reported that maintaining mental health was more difficult during the pandemic. As a result, workplace productivity and engagement suffered as Gen Z employees felt intense burnout, disconnection, and decreased job satisfaction.

When we asked Gray what belonging and connection should look like for Gen Z employees, she affirmed that younger generations of the workforce need long-term solutions that appeal to their unique personal and professional lifestyles.

“From my experience, Gen Z’s belonging in the workplace is about relevant, tangible outcomes for their careers, not just belonging for the sake of belonging. They want to be in the right places to learn the right things and have the exposure to help them to expand their development and their career trajectory.”

Turiya Gray Turiya Gray, HR unConfidential

In other words, Gen Z is more strategic and intentional in developing workplace connections than you might think. Feeling a sense of belonging helps forward their goals, and by fostering meaningful, stigma-free work environments to build connections, employers can greatly improve the mental, emotional, and social well-being of their younger workers.

How the Pandemic Reset Workplace Connection and Belonging

Many Gen Z employees were transitioning into the workforce right as the pandemic erupted. That means they most likely finished college, searched for open positions in a suffocating job market, and attended interviews solely through a computer or phone screen, only to later accept roles that required no in-person collaboration.

Think about what that means.

For the most part, Gen Z has the least amount of familiarity with the conventions, politics, interpersonal dynamics, and standard practices that have traditionally defined office life—otherwise known as the “unwritten rules” of the workplace, which can be both positive and negative.

However, many Gen Z employees have been afforded the newfound agency to work how and where they want. They haven’t been required to show up in company-approved attire, Zoom is their primary conference room, and their smart devices serve as their primary point of contact where personal and professional tasks indistinguishably bleed together.

In other words, Gen Z employees came into the workforce in a much more casual—and authentic—manner than any of their predecessors ever have.

At the same time, however, Gen Z hasn’t gotten to experience the front-row lessons on workplace politics, which are still rife in many companies. Not having that knowledge leaves Gen Z employees left in the dark about the best ways to navigate the waters of recognition and advancement.

And as Gray points out, this can be a double-edged sword.

“All of it is nuanced because a lot of those unspoken workplace expectations have been problematic. Gen Z has the chance to establish new norms and cultures in the workplace. As we navigate ourselves back into the workplace, companies may want to consider Gen Z as the influencers for the legacy things that should change and look differently.”

Turiya GrayTuriya Gray, HR unConfidential

4 Tips for Fostering Gen Z Workplace Belonging

Gen Z employees can offer your organization integrity, social justice, and boldness, making them natural influencers and leaders for many of the initiatives you’re likely already trying to implement.

But you’re not going to get their buy-in or help without establishing an authentic, amenable sense of belonging.

1. Listen First

One of the lessons companies have started to learn is the importance of listening to employees, regardless of their hierarchies or titles.

Traditionally, most companies select a handful of people who have the ears of leadership and tend to be the “voices” of employees. These individuals have the most influence on how things get done, and whether their influence is helpful to all employees or not is sometimes questionable.

And that’s where opportunity lies.

Gen Z is the most diverse generation yet, with 47% identifying as BIPOC compared to 39% of millennials, 34% of Gen X, and 25% of baby boomers. In that same vein, Gen Z has an inherently keen awareness of systemic racism and intersectionality and they are much more accepting of gender identity, particularly in their workplaces.

As such, Gen Z isn’t afraid to be bold and honest about the injustices they see in the world and in their lives. If you’re looking to explore the climate of your company and see if there are any biases or discriminations taking place, talk to your Gen Z employees. They will tell you and most likely collaborate with you to find a solution.

As Gray puts it, forward-thinking companies should see this as a gift.

“Step one is to be intentional about how you're bringing in the voice of people who will say what others won’t. Workplace culture may limit other employees so they may not speak as boldly or passionately as a Gen Z colleague would.”

Turiya Gray Turiya Gray, HR unConfidential

2. Reassess Talent Development and Advancement Opportunities

Gray also suggests that companies rethink their approaches to career development and advancement opportunities for Gen Z employees.

Many Gen Z workers have fresh skills that warrant mentorship and/or promotion, but they may be told they have to “wait their turn” or “earn their stripes.” As a result, they’re passed up for someone more tenured but perhaps less qualified. That approach often erodes belonging and creates an air of bureaucracy.

Instead of assuming that tenure makes an employee eligible for advancement, consider how skills and capabilities factor in, especially when those skills are malleable and fresh out of college.

“I think you would want the very talented, vocal, capable Gen Z who could help really influence positive growth in your organization to be included. Their current title or department shouldn’t keep them out of those conversations and opportunities.”

Turiya GrayTuriya Gray, HR unConfidential

3. Recognize That Mentorship Goes Both Ways

As previously mentioned, due to their tumultuous entry into the workforce, Gen Z is estranged from the traditional underpinnings of corporate work culture. That includes their experiences with mentors.

Traditional mentorships involve a senior-level employee who mentors a junior-level employee. To many members of the workforce, Gen Z and otherwise, this approach can come off as a one-way relationship where senior-level employees wax on about what they’ve learned in their years of experience and how their mentees can benefit.

But Gen Z employees are independent, tech-savvy, and natural problem solvers, and they don’t necessarily need to follow in the footsteps of their older counterparts to become great leaders in their own right.

Are they open to ideas that they can apply to their own goals? Yes. But as Gray highlights, Gen Z may also have something to offer in return, like a fresh perspective or a hyper-awareness of emerging trends. And not taking advantage of that is a missed opportunity.

“Perhaps your path is not as relevant as you might think it is to other people, and perhaps there's something that the more experienced person in that relationship can learn as well. When we rethink what mentoring and sponsorship look like in organizations, both can become more agile.”

Turiya GrayTuriya Gray, HR unConfidential

4. Invest in DEI and ESG

We’ve already highlighted how diverse, intentional, and aware Gen Z employees are. What does that mean for your DEI and ESG initiatives?

That depends.

This generation will inquire about how equitable your hiring practices are, what you’re doing to address climate change, how you’re distributing anti-racism education, and whether your company is truly living its stated values.

And if your answers aren’t satisfactory or intentional, they will hold you accountable.

“Organizations are going to have to decide how willing and ready they are to deliver on their promises. Especially if they want to continue to attract the right people and sustain themselves over some period of time.”

Turiya Gray Turiya Gray, HR unConfidential

The good news? Gen Z generally appreciates a company with its heart in the right place and will happily help you figure out where the disconnects are within your DEI and ESG initiatives, making those project teams more well-rounded, strategic, and (ultimately) successful.

Once you make a commitment to equitably support your Gen Z employees both personally and professionally, you’ll see improvements across your organization. They’ll not only feel more inspired to work with you rather than for you, but they’ll recruit their friends and leverage social media to highlight your company positively.

Gen Z employees can play pivotal roles in your company—and this frank, resilient, and kind-hearted generation has the potential to completely transform what the human-focused workplace should look like. This makes it even more important to foster their social wellness and sense of belonging to maximize their potential.

To learn more about how WellRight can help your company find creative ways to boost social wellness, contact one of our consultants. At WellRight, we’re here to help.

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