How Shared Identity Can Stave Off Depression at Work

Our workplaces are increasingly social places, and I’ve written previously about the buffer our workplaces can form against the various stresses and strains we encounter in life. The study, from researchers at Monash University, found that the more connected employees are to one another, the better able they are to cope with negative events in life, which is a particularly useful characteristic in challenging financial times.

A recent Australian study suggests that it isn’t just the connections themselves that are valuable however, as much as the shared identity we can often gain from group membership.

The research looked at a group of patients that were classified as either having depression or being at risk of developing it. Each of the participants had recently joined a group in their local area. Some of these groups were for sports, some for art or sewing, and others for things such as yoga.

These folks were contrasted with another group whose only ’treatment’ was to visit hospital on a regular basis for group therapy. The only thing that joined the two groups was that all of the participants were new members of their respective groups.

The patients were measured for their level of depression at the start of the research and again three months into their group membership. They were also asked things such as how much they had identified with the group they had joined.

Identity matters

The results revealed just how important identity was. When participants were not particularly attached to their group, they had a roughly 50 percent chance of staying depressed.

If they identified with their group however, this probability dropped to around 33 percent. Interestingly, this improvement was experienced whether the patient was in the community-based group or the hospital-based group. All that mattered was that they looked at their group as an ’us’ rather than a ’them and us’.

The participants revealed that in groups they identified with, they felt they were going through their challenges together as a group, and this support helped them significantly.

“We were able to find clear evidence that joining groups, and coming to identify with them, can alleviate depression,” the researchers say. “Our work shows that the ‘group’ aspect of social interaction is critical.”

Whilst the study mentioned at the start of this post suggests that social contact is all that’s required to fend off depression, this Australian paper believes that social contact is no use if you don’t feel connected to that social network.

“A group has to matter psychologically in order to be beneficial for depression – simply ‘showing up’ without commitment or engagement is unlikely to be sufficient,” they say.

It chimes well with a recent post, where I outline the importance of identity to success at work.

"Leaders who create a strong sense of ’us’ and a sense of belonging within their teams help staff to feel more positive about their work," the researchers said.

What’s more, such people tended to be more productive as well as more engaged. It really does underline the importance of not just providing employees with a strong social network, but also having a strong purpose that binds them together.

Feeling connected again: Interventions that increase social identification reduce depression symptoms in community and clinical settings