The emergence of the “Zoom Happy Hour” was not just a fun distraction from being in quarantine. Socializing with coworkers is an important and necessary component of workplace culture. And not being invited, whether to an after-work bar hop or a call-in video conference, can have an outsized emotional impact on our lives.
Ryan Vogel, associate professor in the Department of Human Resource Management at the Fox School, explored the consequences of people feeling ignored or excluded at the workplace, called workplace ostracism. In particular, his research team studied how ostracism impacts employees’ mood and other psychological states, and how this eventually leads to emotional exhaustion and burnout—which can cross over into your personal life.
“Workplace ostracism is often ambiguous,” Vogel explains. “We don’t always know whether not being invited to lunch was purposeful on the part of our coworkers or not. But what matters is people’s perception: do they feel like they have been excluded.”
“Nobody wants to feel ignored, and healthy communication ensures no one feels left out, even accidentally,” says Vogel.
Vogel and his co-authors found evidence that what happens in the workplace can make its way home. Workers who are ostracized in the workplace feel more emotionally exhausted both inside and outside the workplace, which unfortunately leads them to have negative interactions with their spouses. This can leave your loved ones feeling just as emotionally exhausted as you are.
Their research, “The Cost of Being Ignored: Emotional Exhaustion in the Work and Family Domains,” was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. His co-authors are Meredith Thompson of Utah State University, Dawn Carlson of Baylor University and K. Michele Kacmar of Texas State University.
Although their study was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the conclusions seem to be even more important in today’s work environment. In response to the pandemic, many workplaces in the U.S. have accelerated their plans to roll out new work-from-home policies. For many, home has become work—not to mention the already thinning work-life divide.
Vogel’s take on this is that organizations need to do more to make everybody feel included, starting by those in positions of leadership. Given the prominence of Inclusive Culture in the Fox School’s Strategic Plan 2025, Fox has made strides to make sure employees stay connected with both one another and the leadership team such as Zoom office hours with the deans and virtual coffee breaks. Firms should create spaces for employees to connect with one another online when they can’t visit the water cooler. This might include weekly team meetings, a monthly book club or even the aforementioned Zoom happy hour.
Additionally, Vogel and his co-authors highlight the importance of learning how to appropriately handle stressful situations and difficult teammates without resorting to ostracism. Activities like mindfulness workshops, which the Fox Administrative Programs Council recently sponsored, could help employees process and mitigate negative energy before it affects their behavior.
As many employees return to their workplaces, social distancing will continue to play a large part in mitigating the spread of the virus. People will not be able to gather in large groups, which could affect teammates’ perceptions of inclusion. One solution highlighted in the research was the “10/5” system. When an employee is within 10 feet of a colleague, they should greet a coworker with a smile and a wave. But when they are within five feet, both should engage in a verbal greeting.
“Nobody wants to feel ignored, and this kind of healthy communication ensures no one feels left out, even accidentally,” says Vogel. “But given the current circumstances, let’s make it six feet.”