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Do I have to? How to navigate social activities at work

Do I have to? How to navigate social activities at work

Social activities can be an important part of work life, but what happens if you don’t feel like taking part? We asked SEEK’s Resident Psychologist Sabina Read for her advice on handling social activities at work when you’d prefer to sit them out.

The majority of Australians (82%) will voluntarily get a coffee with a colleague and be sociable at work (80%), but the more effort and time that’s required, the more obliged we feel to participate, SEEK research reveals.

Nearly half (41%) of us (AU) feel obliged to participate in team-building exercises, while more than a third (36% and 34% respectively) feel compelled to contribute money to buy staff presents and take part in charity events. 

When we feel obliged to participate, we tend to think our co-workers will see us as anti-social, not a team player, disinterested or unfriendly if we don’t get involved. But participating in social activities is about striking a balance – one where you and your manager and colleagues are happy. Here’s how to find that balance.

Reframe your thoughts

Sabina says a reluctance to join in is not about being anti-social, but ‘differently social’. “Some people will naturally be drawn to large group activities while others may feel they operate better in smaller groups,” she says. “If we could all view ourselves and each other as social beings with a range of preferences, perhaps the anti-social label would dissolve.”

Don’t sweat the small stuff

Being seen as a team player goes beyond attending social events for work. If you work collaboratively with your colleagues and take an interest in their work, then it’s likely they’ll see you as a team player whether or not you attend each ‘extra-curricular’ social activity.

“Being a team player means being interested, curious, and non-judgemental,” Read confirms. “It’s not necessarily being the life of the party or attending every workplace event.”

Be true to yourself

If you have the option, it’s best to find ways to get involved in social activities that feel aligned with who you are. “If you prefer to listen, then set up opportunities to ask others questions,” Read says. “If you feel more at ease talking, then try to create those opportunities.”

Talking to your manager or supervisor about which activities you’d like to take part in can help them understand your preferences, and often this helps in promoting an inclusive and supportive environment for all employees.

You may want to encourage a frank conversation about contributing to staff presents with the aim of setting up some ground rules (e.g. some staff opt in, or everyone contributes a certain amount at the beginning of the year) so it’s not a recurring issue each time there’s a birthday.

Some involvement is better than none

“If you’re someone who feels less comfortable in groups, it may benefit you to engage in smaller group activities like lunch and coffee, rather than no activities at all,” Read says.

Greeting colleagues when you arrive at work, being pleasant to deal with or getting coffee or lunch with co-workers are all simple ways of creating connections and reinforcing your presence and openness.

You don’t know unless you go

It’s worth remembering that leaving your comfort zone and attending an event you have reservations about can help you grow. “When we derive a sense of meaning, learning, enjoyment, or connection from an activity, we can usually tolerate some discomfort in the process,” Read says.

Being involved in social activities doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Most managers will understand if you can’t or don’t want to take part in every single opportunity. But being open-minded about the benefits of social activities will help you grow as an individual, colleague and employee. 

Source: Independent research conducted by Nature on behalf of SEEK. Interviewing 4800 Australians annually