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Belonging during COVID-19

I have been speaking to community members about how they are dealing with physical distancing and loneliness due to COVID-19. Interestingly, I have discovered that many people feel a greater sense of belonging since the COVID-19 outbreak.

For those experiencing chronic isolation and loneliness — such as older Australians with health conditions, new mums and those struggling with mental health — this time is extremely challenging and services are trying to adapt to the new territory we now find ourselves in. The concern is, how do we deliver compassionate care without face to face connection? At Humankind Enterprises, we are trying to do our bit by launching a digital storytelling program to connect unemployed young people with isolated older Australians in aged care.

However, for the majority of people in our communities that have existing connections of support — such as friends and family they can reach out to — the isolation impacts of COVID-19 are lessened, in part, due to people feeling a strong sense of belonging. Some people’s circle of belonging (those they normally feel connected / bonded to on a daily basis) is actually widening. Neighbours are sharing stories and food for the first time ever, friends are getting back in touch with the extra time on their hands, employees are connecting to their managers and colleagues in ways they never have before.

People have told me that having a similar, shared struggle with others is making them feel a stronger sense of belonging. One woman told me; “It’s the first time everyone I know is experiencing the same thing at the same time”. Another gentleman said, “It’s like the rat race has been put on hold and we’re all dealing with this crisis together”.

We are all aware of the dangers of isolation and loneliness, but should we also be talking about the opportunity for belonging?

Belonging can have great mental health benefits for both young and old, giving us a sense of purpose and connection and can lessen the associated costs of loneliness. People are also more likely to act cooperatively when they have a strong sense of belonging to a collective.

So, how can we increase this opportunity for belonging during COVID-19?

I have three bits of advice for leaders.

1. Display empathy in your leadership

Empathy enhances our sense of belonging to others. When people open their social media, they are seeing stories of friends who have lost jobs, people isolated from their families, stories of health workers risking everything to serve the community. These are contributing to a ‘We’re in This Together’ mindset, however, it is slightly at odds with the feeling we are getting from many government leaders. When Jacinda Ardern did a casually dressed facetime live from her bedroom after putting her toddler to bed, she was speaking with her New Zealand residents. Unfortunately in Australia, we have had politicians speaking at us and telling us off. I think if Scott Morrison and community leaders across the country started to show their vulnerability and humanity, it would go a long way in creating belonging. People are more likely to do the right thing when they feel their actions and humanity are connected to something greater. Safety and risk can be powerful motivators but empathy and belonging are more endearing and motivating.

2. Talk about the future

We are in crisis — there is no doubt about it — but what happens after the crisis? We shouldn’t be thinking ‘What world will we be left with?’, but rather, ‘What world do we want to create?’. Business leaders, community leaders, and political leaders have an opportunity to build belonging by looking forward — taking their communities on a journey of possibility. We need to talk about the future we want. Many of us have been silent and stuck when it comes to political, social and business reform — it has felt so ‘out there’. When the turbines of society are going so fast, so loud and so incessantly, it’s difficult to put a finger on exactly what is wrong. But now it’s quiet. And we can hear ourselves think. And we can start to re-imagine what could be different. Ask your community what they want the future to look like. Use storytelling to make it more engaging. And start to plan a better way forward.

3. Use inclusive language

Although ‘social distancing’ is a public health term, it is somewhat at odds with the mindset we want to instil in our communities. We want to encourage people to be apart but still remain connected so a more appropriate term would be ‘physical distancing’. We need language that empowers people, because people are powerful beings who are influenced by mindset and language. When we use words like ‘elderly’ (which most older people find degrading) and the ‘Chinese virus’ we are at risk of increasing racism, ageism and stereotyping. We need to consciously redirect the narrative towards inclusion.

Next time you talk about COVID-19 to your community or family, look at what language you are using. Is it furthering ‘othering’ and social divides, or is it bringing us under a collective banner of humanity? The latter is where you will find belonging.

Sophie Weldon is Founder of Humankind Enterprises, a Strategic Storytelling Specialist and an advocate for belonging.

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