The power of belonging in the workplace – Mental Health At Work


reading time:6 minutes

James Routledge founded Sanctus in 2016 after struggling with his mental health. Here James shares the importance of “belonging” at work and how powerful it can be for both individuals and the organization they work for.


I once participated in a group coaching exercise where we recorded times in our lives when we felt we belonged.

On the horizontal axis was time—your life to date—and on the vertical axis was your positive or negative feelings of belonging (when you felt a sense of belonging and when you didn’t).

We all ended up with an oscillating chart of our lives and various times that we really felt that we belonged. For example, I felt like I belonged at school and at university. During my first venture, I didn’t feel like I belonged to the startup ecosystem.


I really felt like I could be myself when I went to work

What struck me was how much I felt like I belonged in the workplace when I worked at KFC in 18/19 before going to university. I had a clear goalpurpose
This guide can help you and your colleagues discover your purpose and ensure you’re working towards it every day.Free

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Show ResourceClose for being there – saving for travel – and I really felt like I could be myself when I went to work. I haven’t seen myself there in ages. Nevertheless, I had the feeling of being able to perform authentically. James at 18 might have said otherwise, but I look back on it with a lot of affection now.


Recently, when I founded Sanctus, I felt a deep sense of belonging to our team and the wider community. I felt like I had created a community where I could be myself and more. The fact that it was a “workplace” was not even registered for a long time. I had friends at work and not only was I able to share my biggest challenges, I felt like I had room to grow and become more of who I could be. I felt like I could reach my potential.

The sense of belonging in a workplace is strong, it goes well beyond the job and the responsibilities. There is purpose, there is purpose, and there is a community of people in which rich relationships are developed. In Sanctus I felt like I was among like-minded people, all with similar values ​​and lifestyles. It created a sense of familiarity, trust, and connection that work didn’t feel like work anymore. It also resonated through our company and our brand, the customers could feel it, the world could feel it.

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But that didn’t last forever for me. I made progress at both KFC and Sanctus guide rollersQuick tips for line managers
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Show ResourceClose. I remember when at KFC I put on a team leader’s black t-shirt and suddenly I felt different, I didn’t feel as much a part of the team anymore.

How could I be friends with the team at the pub when I was making hiring and firing decisions the next morning?

As I progressed from a founder to a CEO role at Sanctus, so did I. I felt like I couldn’t fit in as a leader in the same way – I couldn’t share how i struggledApproaching a sensitive conversation about mental illness
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Show ResourceClose. How the dynamics of my power and possessions were confusing and changing things. How could I be friends with the team at the pub when I was making hiring and firing decisions the next morning? The lines blurred and I struggled to feel like I belonged. I felt I had to choose not to belong in order to become a good leader.

I don’t have all the answers to the question of belonging at work. But I know the feeling of belonging to your work community and how powerful it can be for you and how good it can be for business and performance as well.

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Workers attend a safety briefing at a warehouse

I wrote a lot about community and belonging in my book Mental Health at Work. In this book, I interviewed Claude Silver, Chief Heart Officer at Vaynermedia, and she has a lot more answers than I do when it comes to belonging. She bases much of her people-centric role on how her workplace allows people to feel a sense of belonging and to connect deeply with her and her colleagues. In her words, belonging is good for the heart and for the hustle. I agree.

However, as I have experienced, cultivating this mysterious and coveted sense of belonging is difficult. IIt takes personal work from the individual to show up and connect in a real way and it takes effort from others in the organization to welcome all the different parts of our humanity.

We may not have all the answers, but it’s important that we can ask these questions together.

What I do know is that feeling included at work and expressing who you are is and is a priority for many of us a driving force behind how the world is changing. We may not have all the answers, but it’s important that we can ask these questions together.

And the statistics show that too. A 2021 McKinsey & Company survey found that the top reasons employees quit their jobs are because they:

  • Don’t feel valued by their company (54%)
  • Do not feel valued by their managers (52%)
  • Or they didn’t feel they belonged in their workplace (51%)

Claude Silver, who I just mentioned above, is attending a free webinar on Tuesday, June 21st to talk about belonging in the workplace.

Our own Dr. Albert Viljoen will delve into the psychology behind belonging, and then Claude will explain to us how she worked to bring a sense of belonging to VaynerMedia.

If you are interested in learning more about fostering a sense of belonging in the workplace, you can register for our webinar here.


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