The power of belonging in the workplace

James Routledge
James Routledge

Founder, Sanctus

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 organisation they work for.


I once took part in a group coaching exercise where we mapped out times in our life we’d felt like we belonged.

Along the horizontal axis was time – your life so far – and the vertical axis was your positive or negative feelings of belonging (when you felt like you did belong and when you didn’t)

We all ended up with an oscillating graph of our life and different times we’d felt like we really belonged. For example, I felt like I belonged at school and at University. I didn’t feel like I belonged in the startup ecosystem during my first business.

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

What struck me was how much I’d felt like I belonged in the workplace when I was 18/19 working at KFC before I went to university. I had a clear purpose​Purpose PDF This guide can help you and you colleagues discover your purpose, and ensure you are working towards it every day.Free By: Unilever View resource for being there – saving up for travelling – and I really felt like I could be myself when I went to work. I didn’t see myself there forever. Yet I felt like I could show up authentically. James at 18 might have said differently, yet I look back at it now with a lot of fondness.

More recently, when I founded Sanctus I felt a deep sense of belonging within our team and wider community. I felt like I’d created a community where I could be all of myself and more. The fact it was a ‘workplace’ didn’t even register for a long time. I had friends at work and not only could I share my biggest challenges, I also felt like I had room to grow and become more of who I might be. I felt like I could achieve my potential.

Employees in a meeting

A feeling of belonging in a workplace is powerful, it goes way beyond the day job and the tasks. There’s purpose, there’s meaning and there’s a community of people where rich relationships are developed. In Sanctus I felt like I was with like-minded people, all with similar values and ethos of life. That created a feeling of familiarity, trust and connection that meant work didn’t much feel like work. It reverberated through our company and brand too, customers could feel it, the world could feel it.

That didn’t last forever for me, though. Both in KFC and in Sanctus, I progressed into managerial roles​Quick tips for line managers PDF The coronavirus pandemic has changed how many of us work, with more people than ever working from home away from the rest of our teams. The Charlie Waller Trust have compiled this short page of tips to help you protect your remote employees' mental wellbeing.Free By: Charlie Waller View resource. I remember when I put on the black shirt of a team leader at KFC and I felt different all of sudden, I didn’t feel as much as one of the team.

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

Graduating from a Founder to a CEO role in Sanctus I felt the same too. I felt that as a leader I couldn’t belong in the same way – I couldn’t share how I was struggling​Approaching a sensitive conversation around mental ill health PDF Every conversation a manager has with a colleague who may be experiencing mental ill health will be different. This PDF guide from Acas has tips for managers to think about when approaching such a conversation.Free By: Acas View resource. How the dynamics of my power and ownership were confusing and changed things. How could I be friends with the team down the pub when I was making hiring and firing decisions the next morning? The lines became blurred and I struggled to feel like I did belong. I felt like I had to choose not to belong, to become a good leader.

I don’t have all the answers to the topic of belonging at work. Yet I know the feeling of belonging in your workplace community and how powerful it can be for you, and how good it can be for business and performance too.

Workers attend a safety briefing in a warehouse

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

As I’ve experienced it though, cultivating that mysterious and sought after sense of belonging is difficult. It requires personal work by the individual to show up and connect in a genuine way and it requires an effort from others in the company to welcome all the different parts of our humanity.

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

What I know is, feeling like you belong at work and can express who you are is a priority for many of us and is a driving force in how the world is changing. We might not all have the answers, yet it’s important that we can ask these questions together.

And the stats show this too. A survey from McKinsey & Company in 2021 found that the top reasons employees are quitting their jobs is because they:

  • Don’t feel valued by their business (54%)
  • Don’t feel valued by their managers (52%)
  • Or they didn’t feel a sense of belonging in their workplace (51%)

Claude Silver, who I’ve just mentioned above, is joining us for a free webinar on Tuesday 21st June to talk through the topic of belonging at work.

Our own Dr. Albert Viljoen will be looking at the psychology behind belonging, and then Claude will talk us through how she’s worked to instill a sense of belonging at VaynerMedia.

If you’re interested in hearing more about fostering a sense of belonging in the workplace, you can sign up for our webinar here.

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