Physical contact is key to our mental health: So why are UK workers so resistant to touch?
Awkward embraces. Weird handshakes. Kisses to the cheek. Group hugs. To some people, these are the 4 pillars of office hell. To others, personal space invasions like these act as a great way for people in the office to connect and forge a closer bond.
According to a recent Totaljobs survey however, the vast majority of UK employees prefer to reduce or even completely ban physical contact in the workplace. Ouch.
Here are the key stats from the survey:
This is great news for personal space advocates. However, without touch, workplace mental health could suffer - so how do we strike a balance that keeps both camps happy?
First, let’s dig into why we need touch
In extreme cases, a lack of touch can lead to serious emotional problems and mental health issues. Appropriate touch, however, is a strong factor that can increase connection, safety and trust amongst people.
A vital ingredient for strong teams and healthy group mentalities.
Touch is also of tremendous importance for our mental health
In America you can actually hire someone to simply come and hug you. Yes, being a hugger can be a real full time job.
A famous study done by Harlow showed that when monkeys are separated from their carers, they would rather hug a warm object for comfort rather than choosing to eat. This shows that physical connection could actually outweigh eating on our level of needs.
Also, a study conducted on Romanian orphans found that a lack of physical touch during their development years led to some serious mental health and emotional consequences for the children.
This is because touch is the most important form of communication during infancy, and it can signal safety, comfort, support and love - variables needed for creating healthy attachments and developing a healthy, strong personality.
We have an emotional touch nervous system
Our skin is our largest organ and it has special sensors called C tactile fibers, that are only activated by soft carrasses. They send information to the brain part called posterior insula, that is crucial for socially-bonding touch. These set of sensors and nerve fibers are completely separated by our normal touch receptors, and are thought to be tuned in for social and emotional touch.
So why do some of us avoid touch?
Touch is a strong form of communication and in an ideal situation, touch should be associated with safety and comfort. We should at least be able to take out any ambiguous meaning from touch and be able to touch only for touch sake.
As many of us know, this is rarely the case in office situations. Suspicions over people’s intentions and what they associate with touch is simply a mechanism we have all developed to protect ourselves from certain types of people. But it goes deeper than that.
When we feel uncomfortable around touch, the causes of these negative feelings are normally something to do with how we were treated in the past. In most cases, our touch-phobia comes from how our parents interacted with us. Some of us were drowned in hugs, while others had a fairly cold upbringing. Both, heavily influence how we feel about being touched.
The famous ‘self-soothing’ technique, that suggested that you should let your child cry before sleep so they can learn to regulate themselves, was actually associated to significant consequences on the babies emotional and mental wellbeing.
Because of this, many individuals do not have the awareness that touch can be simply used for touch sake, in a playful, soothing, and safe way.
What we associate with touch could be because of where we are from.
The exact meaning we associate to touch differs based on cultural norms and personal past experiences. In Brazil, for example, touch is a normal form of communication that only suggests friendliness and playfulness. People there are generally very open to it as it’s been heavily normalised (but can be quite a shock for visitors from outside the country).
However, in Scandinavian countries, touch is mostly associated with romantic initiations. Touch is also associated with manipulation or force. In these contexts, touch can make people feel unsafe, upset or very vulnerable.
Now, take these opposite attitudes to touch and mix them together - which is normally the case in London workplaces and you can begin to understand why modern work environments’ in cities with global cultures can be so complex.
Everybody has their own interpretation and meaning of what touch means. Trying to infer in a work context the various touch languages can make touch feel complicated and awkward.
In some extreme cases, basic touch can be received as unwanted sexual proposals. Given all of this, it may be seen easier to avoid touch altogether.
But is eliminating touch all together really the solution?
Touch is a basic human need, and we all need much more physical contact than we can get on an average day.
Work is the place where we spend most of our time, therefore it is important to feel safe enough at work to be able to give or receive appropriate touch without feeling uncomfortable and awkward.
When you feel comfortable touching a person, may this be through a handshake or a gentle tap on the shoulder, it shows that a certain level of trust and comfort is established in that environment and between the people involved.
Moreover, trust and comfort are essential for creating psychological safety, which is a key requirement for creativity, innovation and can also fuel productivity by decreasing stress. We can congratulate the UK for already taking a serious step towards changing the meaning we give to touch, by imposing the ZERO tolerance policy.
All in all, touch is a primary need and a strong form of communication that plays great importance for our emotional health. Used appropriately it can increase connection and signal safety and support, but used inappropriately, it can lead to serious consequences. This can explain why some of us just live for those group hugs and others would rather jump out of a 3-storey window.
Now it is up to each and every one of us to take responsibility for how we view and react to touch and to create a culture where touch is viewed as a safe action, that feeds our connection rather than what draws us apart.
Here are 5 ways we can make touch less awkward
Take some time to notice what touch means to you. When was the first time you associated this meaning to touch? Is this still valid?
Acknowledge that is possible to have touch simply for touch sake, without any additional meaning. What do you need in order to be comfortable to touch for touch sake?
If you are strongly resistant to touch because of past traumatic experiences, we strongly recommend seeking professional support.
2. Be clear about your touch associations.
Make sure that the meaning you associate with touch is the same as the one people around you do. Take some time to notice how others react to touch, or how others approach touch. After this, be clear about what touch means to you.
You can do this by simply telling others what you think, having an open conversation about touch. Initially, this can seem like a lot of work or awkward in itself, but in time this will save you from many other uncomfortable situations, and will help you get the touch you need for your own health.
3. Set boundaries and have zero tolerance to inappropriate touch
Make sure that you are open and honest when touch makes you feel uncomfortable.
Have zero tolerance to inappropriate touch. When you notice inappropriate physical contact, make sure you report it and do not let it slip away.
However, make sure you can tell the difference between what is indeed inappropriate or what simply feels outside of your comfort zone. For example, people from certain cultures may simply be more touchy, without having any ulterior motives.
In this context, be honest with them about how you feel. Or you can use this chance to get more comfortable with touch yourself. You can learn from them to take out the meaning you give to touch, and simply enjoy it for touch sake.
4. Make it light hearted
One easy way in which you can take out the awkwardness out of touch is by making it fun. We all make silly mistakes, thus if you have an awkward handshake or touch someone and
cause discomfort by mistake, you can always make a joke out of it.
5. Lead by example
The best way to lead change is by embodying what you preach. So, there is no way out, if you want your colleagues to feel safe and comfortable with appropriate touch at work, you are the first who should feel this way. If you don’t already, start by following the steps above.
Do you feel that workplace touch can enhance relationships?
What steps are you willing to take?
2. Harlow, H. F. (1958). The nature of love. American psychologist, 13(12), 673.
3. Zeanah, C. H., Smyke, A. T., Koga, S. F., Carlson, E., & Bucharest Early Intervention Project Core Group. (2005). Attachment in institutionalized and community children in Romania. Child development, 76(5), 1015-1028.
4. Spitz, R. A., & Wolf, K. M. (1946). Anaclitic depression: An inquiry into the genesis of psychiatric conditions in early childhood, II. The psychoanalytic study of the child, 2(1), 313-342.