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Implementing Relational Pauses To Improve Workplace Wellness

With anxiety, stress, and burnout becoming more commonplace in the workplace, companies are searching for solutions for their employees. Corporate wellness programs are being tasked with more than just improving physical health, they are also trying to address employee emotional wellness.

Self-care is often promoted as the key component to health and wellness. Research is showing that while this approach is well-meaning, it often misses the mark and in some cases may even undermine wellness efforts. Employees are human, and humans have evolved as social beings. When solutions are offered that only address the person, the message communicated reinforces disconnection and isolation. Psychological health is not achieved alone and studies show that feeling disconnected is as significant of a health risk as low physical activity, heavy alcohol usage, and even smoking.

A critical consideration to achieving employee overall wellness is to address employee social connection. This is even more essential for businesses with remote staff. A novel approach to help with this is for companies to implement relational pauses into team engagements.

What is a Relational Pause

The Harvard Business Review defines a relational pause as a "temporary, often brief, break from ongoing task work". It involves reflection on the emotional reality of work. The goal is to get teams to ask and answer the critical question:

"How is our work affecting us as human beings?"

A relational pause is a way to assess how work is affecting people. It is not a time to be hypercritical, nit-picking, whining, or grumbling. The purpose is to give a glimpse into the emotional and relational realities of work and to then engage productively with these realities.

How to Incorporate Relational Pauses

A relational pause is more effective when it has been practiced. To make this more routine, it should be a standard part of team meetings. When some adversity, loss, or other time that emotion is heightened, it provides an effective way to navigate emotionally challenging situations. For many, modeling vulnerability might be required to let employees know that expressing feelings in the workplace is welcomed.


Download the Executing a Relational Pause worksheet here:

Executing a Relational Pause Worksheet V.0422A
Download PDF • 169KB

There are 3 components to performing an effective relational pause. They are:

1. Ask

Emotional experiences do not stop influencing work productivity just because it's not talked about. To get a better understanding of how work is affecting employees, ask questions such as:

  • "What is creating anxiety or frustration?"

  • "Are there behaviors that exhibit symptoms of stress or burnout?"

  • "Are people feeling connected or isolated?"

  • "What gives you energy?"

  • "When do you feel engaged?"

Invite each employee to share their experiences to show them they aren't isolated. The very act of verbalizing emotions (and receiving compassion and acceptance along the way) helps dissipate the emotion throughout the group in a healthy and productive way.

2. Acknowledge and Assess

Managers should sit back and observe the conversation. This is not an appropriate time to problem-solve and jump to solutions, or to start blaming. Listen deeply without judgment. For a relational pause to be effective, employees must feel safe to share their feelings. Kindness, grace, and compassion should be expressed by the rest of the team. Praise should be given to those who show up and participate.

Look for recurrent themes over time and label them. For example, if employees travel frequently and many share feelings of the frustration associated with it, then create a category for "Travel frustrations". Other common themes could be "Technology frustrations", or "When clients drive us crazy".

3. Adapt

Once it is understood how these experiences impact the team, then the conversation can shift to considering potential places where change can reduce threats organizationally. With genuine connections and collective engagement distress within the company becomes the distress of the collective. As a team takes ownership of this distress, it disperses throughout the team and this allows them to also own any potential changes.

As teams become better able to understand each other they become healthier and more productive. They learn to recognize when emotion may be leading them down the wrong path. Not only are there individual social health benefits, but research shows improvements in knowledge sharing, communication, collaboration, and systems thinking for the entire team.

Relational pauses are just one tool to help companies take advantage of collective ownership of adversity. By improving the social health of each employee, the collective grows in connection and purpose. Ultimately it helps a company achieve its health and wellness goals.


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