Hello and welcome to another edition of the Women in Medicine Badass Radioshow with me, Dr. Sharon Grossman. Today we are going to talk about how to combat stress and increase happiness through social support.
But before we dive in, let’s clarify what we are talking about. Social support can mean the assistance you receive from others. This can include psychological and material resources. On the flip side, when you lack social support, you might feel like you have no one you can count on in times of need. So this is important and you can start to understand why social support helps mitigate stress. And we can also talk about perceived social support, which is your perceptions of help that you receive from others. And the reason I mention this is because sometimes you might actually get support but discount it, in which case it wouldn’t help mitigate stress for you, or alternatively — you might get very little support, but if you perceive it as supportive, you will feel happier.
Social support comes in 4 different flavors. The first is emotional support which is probably the most important kind. This is where you have others who will listen to you when you’re going through something and show you they care, understand, and empathize with you. They might reassure you that you can get back up after you’ve fallen or let you know that they get you.
The second type of support is what we call instrumental support. This is when you are moving and your friends come over to help you pack or when you get stranded on the side of the road due to a flat tire and someone calls a tow truck for you.
Next, we have informational support which usually comes in the form of advice to help you cope with a difficult situation. Sometimes people seek out advice from their medical doctors, their barber, their bartender, or their parents.
Lastly, we have appraisal support which is more like feedback about your performance so you can improve. This may be at work from your boss or it could be from your dental hygienist about how well you are brushing your teeth.
All forms of social support are important, of course. As Heller Keller said, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” When you have social support at work, burnout rates decline as work satisfaction and productivity rates rise. Social support outside of work in the form of friendships can positively impact your mental state and increase your self-esteem, your morale, and mood.
While social support comes in several forms, the type of support most helpful to diminish burnout is emotional support. Interestingly, when people burn out, they tend to want more instrumental support, someone to help them get things done. Instrumental support is most helpful when it also provides you with emotional support.
A work culture that allows you to adjust your hours so that you can better attend to family demands is indirectly providing emotional support.
Emotional support is so vital to your job commitment that even the perception of such support can increase engagement. It turns out that when your boss is understanding of your family demands, you are more willing to put in long hours on the job, and, despite working longer hours, you are less likely to reach burnout when you receive this workplace emotional support.
Part of the reason why social support leads to higher engagement is because it sends a message that the company for which you work cares about your well-being. One basic premise in demonstrating this principle is keeping stress levels down and encouraging work-life. balance. To achieve this, your company may need to increase staff size and allow you more flexibility in terms of work arrangements.
When it comes to social support such as informal mentoring, findings point to insignificant results that do little to protect you from burnout. However, when provided formal mentorship, so long as there is a good fit between the mentor and the mentee, the relationship can act as a buffer for stress. Mentoring reduces fatigue, increases confidence, and thereby improves self-efficacy, a primary factor for engagement.
As an example of how mentoring can make a huge difference, consider Julio, a worker who is trying to keep up with the heavy demands of his job by working around the clock. Perhaps one reason Julio is overwhelmed is because he feels alone in the pursuit of his work. Maybe he is focused on tasks that are outside his scope, which is why it takes him longer to complete them. If Julio were provided mentorship by his company, his mentor might help him to understand his strengths and weaknesses and how to align his tasks accordingly. He could learn to focus on his skillset and as a result, new opportunities might become available to him.
Julio’s mentor may also have far-reaching connections to experts that can help Julio hone in on specific skills of interest. By having a mentor or role model, Julio will feel that the work he is doing is more meaningful, which will not only be beneficial for his company but will also improve his professional development.
When Julio feels overwhelmed by stress, his mentor might help him use different and more effective coping mechanisms. By learning how to adapt to challenging situations and by feeling like he has a sounding board in his mentor, Julio will feel supported which will lift up his mood, his energy, and his focus, and help him engage with his work even in the face of stress.
If you are like Julio, you need to be clear about expectations related to your role. Too often, organizations go through management changes where such details fall through the cracks. When workers get promoted or start a new project, they may also experience a lack of clarity. Taking the time to define your role and communicate about it can have a significant positive impact.
Lastly, it is best if your employer has systems in place for you to attain recognition from your boss and colleagues about your work. If your place of work lacks feedback structures, consider what would help you feel more recognized for your efforts and suggest the adoption of these supportive new practices.
Outside of work, your relationships also help your resilience. Who are your cheerleaders? When you are struggling, is there anyone who will give you encouragement to keep going even when it seems all the odds are stacked against you? Build your support team. This can consist of friends, family members, teachers, therapists, or coaches. You may also feel inspired by fictional characters in a movie you saw or a book you read. Your support person may be a celebrity or someone you admire. Once you have located your squad, know that you can rely on their support in tough times, even if only in your mind. If your support team consists of deceased individuals or people you cannot contact, internalize their voice, and when faced with a challenge, ask yourself what they would say. Remember, being vulnerable is not a sign of weakness. It is much more beneficial to have the courage to know your limitations and ask for support when you need it.
If you do not feel you have a support team, even having just one person on your side can make you more resilient. If you need to increase your circle, look for like-minded individuals. Consider volunteer opportunities or a place of worship to create community. Call people who do not live close to you. Technology is helping us break distance and financial barriers to communication. And, if being around others is too overwhelming, you can gain similar benefits from having a pet.
Knowing what affects you most and preparing for it in advance can help you stay grounded in the presence of stress.
So to recap, Here are 7 ways to increase your social support:
- Get involved in groups, clubs, or classes
- Get to know your neighbors and community
- Start your own support group
- Find a mentor
- Hire a coach or therapist
- Spend more quality time with supportive people in your life
What it boils down to is that you either need to increase your social circle or engage more qualitatively with the people already in that circle. And don’t wait for others to come to you. Assert yourself by asking for what you need rather than wait and hope that someone will read your mind. Take your happiness into your own hands, my friends. You’ll be glad you did.