What does it mean to be prosocial? And 7 ways to combat loneliness at work

depressed man sitting in front of glowing computer screen.

What makes people happy?

Obviously, that’s a complex question. But there is one thing that studies point to as a common thread.

“In many of the studies I’ve read about what makes people happy, the answer I see most is interpersonal relationships,” says Eron Key, licensed social worker and substance abuse counselor for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “Your partner, your family, your friends, your coworkers — people are what make people happy.”

So what happens when something like a global pandemic disrupts those relationships?

“Post-COVID, there’s been a sharp increase in depressive symptoms, especially among certain populations,” says Key. “More than 60% of Americans report feeling lonely, and that percentage may be higher among adolescents, people who live alone, the elderly, mothers of young children and those who faced hardships during the pandemic (financial stress, isolation).”

Some people were unable to physically visit family. Others moved to a new town for work and then couldn’t go into the office for months or even years. All of our circumstances have been really hard, says Key.

“The idea of not having a connection with anyone day-to-day is really impactful and really real,” she says. “Luckily, there are things we can all do now to build those connections up.”

What does it mean to be prosocial?

Key: Being prosocial means making a conscious effort to get yourself out there. It’s not going to happen on its own. These days, many of us aren’t in a setting where we’re seeing people throughout our day. That means we must be proactive. We have to reach out and ask, ‘How was your vacation?’ or ‘How was your daughter’s recital?’ Otherwise, we’re just staring at our screens.

Interactions like that may seem so simple that you think losing them doesn’t matter; that’s not the case. Making those connections is important foundationally to the whole idea of being happy. When we lose personal interactions, it creates a void that nothing else can fill.

How do prosocial actions affect your work life?

Key: Back when you were in an office, there was work, work, work, and then a little bit of play. You’d work on a project or go to a meeting, and then someone would pop by your office to talk about a TV show, or you’d get together to share food or grab lunch. That social downtime is what we’ve lost. Today, it’s a struggle to keep people engaged with each other, and a team chat — even if it’s open all day — isn’t the same. This matters because, for some of us, those interactions make up a big portion of our interpersonal relationships on any given day.

For example, most of my team members here at BlueCross have been with the company for longer than I have. When we weren’t in the office, I could feel that we lost some momentum in forming connections with each other. But connecting in a meaningful way with the people you’re spending time with matters.

How can you increase your prosocial behaviors at work specifically?

Key: First, recognize that increasing your social behaviors is a lot easier said than done. It’s hard to put your genuine self out there! Cut yourself some slack, and don’t feel like you have to do everything at once.

Next, figure out little ways you can put yourself in a position to give and receive positive things. It’s all about building relationships so you know people a little bit beyond their title and function. Then you grow naturally from there.

7 ways to boost your social IQ at work

1. Ask a question 

Key: Each day, make it a point to ask one person what’s going on with them. Set a reminder in your calendar or put it on your to-do list if you have to! It can be as simple as finding out where someone is from, or asking if they’ve been anywhere good to eat lately if you live in the same place.

2. Share an emotion

Key: If you’re feeling lonely or disconnected, share that feeling with someone you feel comfortable with. If there’s one thing I know from working with people, chances are that if one person is feeling a certain way, two or three or four people probably are. Saying it out loud is an outlet for everyone.

3. Schedule something in person

Key: I’m not always in the same city as my whole team, but I make sure to schedule dinner with them once a quarter. Figure out what works for you, and get it on the books.

4. Call people instead of only using instant messenger

Key: I have a rule: If more than 3 emails go back and forth with one person and we don’t find a resolution, I’m going to pick up the phone and call that person. Not only is it faster, but often it yields a little bit of social interaction. Plus, one great thing about the phone is there’s no agonizing over exactly how you’ll phrase something like you might do with an email, which means less anxiety.

5. Use technology to stay social 

Key: That said, if you’re not comfortable calling someone, take advantage of the wide virtual world at your fingertips. Get a group chat together, and branch out from just work-related topics. For example, I know there’s a group who blows off steam virtually by following current events, and I think that’s a beautiful thing! If you find one thing in common with someone, you’d be surprised how much you can build on that.

6. Take a chance

Key: The biggest step you can take toward becoming prosocial is to take a chance, virtually or in person. Go out, shake up your routine, get outside of your comfort zone. If you never communicate via phone, call someone. Invite someone for a walk or eat in a common space, even if it makes you uncomfortable the first time. When we put ourselves out there as much as we can, good things happen.

7. Ask for help

Key: Loneliness can take you down a long, dark rabbit hole. It’s important to take a step back and recognize if you’re sinking before you’re too far down.

And remember: Some days, “happy” may feel like a stretch. On those days, just take one step to get you to “okay.” Then you can do a little more tomorrow.

            Read next: When to seek help for mental health

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on bcbst.com. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.

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Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).