If you ever look at negative company reviews on Glassdoor, you’ll see a recurring theme: “Management was awful, but my coworkers were great.” Coworkers can make or break your experience at a company, but even if you don’t immediately click with your team, there are plenty of ways to build camaraderie intentionally. Feeling connected with your coworkers has many benefits. They’re a support network during tough times, and they form the foundation of your professional network as you forge your physical therapy career path (whether you choose to stay in patient care or pursue a non-clinical role). With a constant stream of reimbursement cuts and payment changes, things have gotten a bit negative in the rehab therapy world lately—which means it’s more important than ever to build trust, support, and positivity among your colleagues. Here are some ways to connect with coworkers and create lasting relationships that you can nurture throughout your PT career.

1. Journal Clubs

Journal clubs were quite popular for a while, but as companies tightened lunch hours and increased their focus on productivity, many journal clubs fell by the wayside. That’s a shame, because one of the best ways to remain invested in your profession is to team up with others who share your passion, and talk through the latest evidence with them. Luckily, you can get pretty creative with how you set up a journal club.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Point person: One person reads articles in advance, distills the results for the group over lunch, and leads a follow-up discussion. You can switch up the leader for each meeting or elect a point person or two who seem up to the challenge.
  • Online clubs: You and your coworkers can join an existing online journal club and talk through cases. For example, the OT Potential Club is managed by an OT who pores over OT-related research each week, distills it for ease of consumption, and moderates a subsequent online discussion on the article. 

2. Lunch-and-Learns

These are technically different from journal clubs, but they’re equally open to your own interpretation. Some people do use lunch-and-learns to discuss journal articles, but others will grab an empty space and take turns doing quick 5-15 minute presentations on various topics, followed by discussions. The nice thing about this setup is that you can build the transferable skill of presentation, which can be really helpful for if you ever pursue sales roles, clinical trainer roles, or other non-clinical positions that require speaking in front of groups.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Round-robin presentations: Participants can do 5-10 minute PowerPoint presentations on all sorts of topics, both clinical and non-clinical.
  • Single presenters: A single therapist or assistant can prepare a longer presentation on a topic of choice.
  • Language skills: Depending on your patient population, lunch breaks can also be used to practice healthcare terminology in another language. 

3. Patient Power Hours

Some settings can be particularly taxing from a diagnostic, physical, or emotional standpoint. If you’re working with a challenging patient population, it can be helpful to talk through certain cases (anonymously and without violating HIPAA, of course) with coworkers. Consider patient power hours, where you get together with coworkers and chat through your most challenging cases. 

Here are a few ideas:

  • Lunchtime power hours: These have some crossover with lunch-and-learns, but you can round-robin or take turns each session presenting challenging cases and seeking feedback. 
  • Post-work walks: Similar to a “learn-and-burn”—a term that many entrepreneurs use to describe walking or exercising while listening to educational materials—an off-hours walk-and-talk session affords you the opportunity to talk through challenging cases with your coworkers. 

4. Group Workouts

It’s so frustrating when a month passes and you realize you simply haven’t been active. But work and life commitments often take precedence over your fitness—and, unless you commit to exercising during normal work hours, it can be a challenge to get yourself to the gym. Luckily, many of us work in gym settings where it’s easy to become active, especially when you team up with one or more partners who can hold you accountable. Rather than documenting during lunch, shoot for point-of-care documentation (whenever it’s safe and feasible), and use part of your lunch break to get moving!

Here are a few ideas:

  • Plank competitions: Whoever holds a plank the longest gets to wear a crown for the rest of the day.
  • Gym time at work: Challenge yourself to use some of the older, more, uh, dated equipment in the gym—or simply stick to the treadmills and bikes. 
  • Weightlifting days: Grab the therapist with the most strength training experience and ask him or her to teach weight lifting techniques to the whole staff during lunch.

5. Lunches Together

This one might seem really obvious, but hear me out. Sometimes, it’s helpful to simply use your lunch break to eat and talk with your coworkers about non-work-related things. While most clinics keep therapists on schedules that preclude taking leisurely offsite lunches, you can still arrange to sit together in a new spot in the facility—or even spend lunch hours talking about favorite shows! (I know, I know—now that Game of Thrones is over, is it even worth it?)

Here are a few ideas:

  • Soup exchange: On cold days, everyone brings enough of their favorite soup for the whole clinic to enjoy. You can take turns doing this so everyone gets to (has to) bring enough for everyone.
  • Polar bear lunch club: On a cold-but-sunny day, everyone brings layers galore and sits outside to eat lunch and get a dose of mood-boosting vitamin D.

6. Birthday Celebrations

Feeling appreciated and noticed is vital to preventing burnout. Management may or may not take the initiative to celebrate birthdays, but bringing attention to each individual’s special day is an excellent way to make him or her feel valued. If you become the birthday party planner, you’ll build trust and good cheer in the clinic—and you can add event planning to your resume!

Here are a few ideas: 

  • Themed birthday potlucks each month: While smaller teams can usually get away with individual celebrations, it often makes sense to do group birthday potlucks on a monthly basis for larger teams. Add a unique feel to these events by giving them themes, such as “lucky” foods for March or healthy treats in January. Pre-work breakfasts can also work, but people might be a bit grumpier than they’d be at lunchtime!
  • Happy hours: If you’re on a team with younger, less encumbered-with-responsibility folks, you might want to have informal happy hours outside of the clinic. These typically build lots of camaraderie, as long as you avoid letting them turn into vent sessions—or worse, inadvertently exclude coworkers who don’t drink or can’t attend due to post-work family obligations.

7. Award Ceremonies

In a healthy, fun-loving clinic environment, you’ll usually have a variety of personality types: the person who is always early and organized, the person who goes above and beyond at community events, or the one who always puts together slick flyers—just to name a few. So, why not recognize each MVP for his or her unique talent or contribution? Not only can you create ribbons for the winners to wear at work—which can help spark conversation with patients—but you can also work with management to further reward and recognize the honorees. These ceremonies can take place at the end of the last Friday of each month or quarter, with the last patient(s) of the day sticking around to help vote!

Here are a few ideas:

  • Best mood: There is no substitute for the positive vibe created by a coworker who is always cheerful and smiling. Reward him or her with recognition, gift cards, PTO, and other treats to keep those smiles coming!
  • Most artistic: Is someone from the office always coming in early to decorate for the holidays? Does he or she design fancy flyers for community events? Consider gifting that person an art class at a local college.
  • Most improved: Did one of the therapists recently earn a new certification? Has someone’s documentation skills skyrocketed? Acknowledge this at your awards ceremony!

8. Meditation Breaks

Meditation has been shown to help decrease stress, and it can be a great team-building activity for stressed-out staff. Most folks who are new to meditation can only do it for a few minutes at a time, making it the perfect pre-work bonding activity. You could also do it at lunch or after work, but because many settings have flexible hours and people coming and going, a morning meditation session often works best. 

Here are a few ideas: 

  • Meditation master: Elect a team member to lead meditation sessions every week, or pass the duty around to new folks each time. (Those who are less inclined to lead sessions could find free guided meditation sessions online and play them for the group.)
  • Themed sessions: Consider encouraging therapists to open up about stressors at work, and then design meditation sessions around topics addressing those stressors.

9. Social Time

Sometimes, we don’t really need anything fancy or work-based to bond with our coworkers. The simple act of getting together outside of work can be incredibly helpful with cultivating camaraderie, and it only takes one person to get the ball rolling for these events. 

Here are some ideas: 

  • Local outings: Once per quarter, find a local event (hiking, camping, kayaking, book clubs, etc.) and go with your coworkers. It’s a great way to connect outside of work and build the types of bonds that go beyond being work buddies. 
  • Clothing or houseware swaps: Get 10-15 colleagues together and have them bring gently used clothes, housewares, and babies’ and kids’ items. You can look online for swap rules (some folks like to draw numbers for “pick order,” while others go for the free-for-all approach). 
  • Escape rooms: Escape rooms are incredible for team-building and identifying each others’ strengths and communication styles. While management might not foot the bill for this kind of event, groups can land some pretty good deals at these places. 

The best thing you can do for your career is to build a strong professional network. You never know where you—or your coworkers—will wind up in five, ten, or 20 years, so it’s a good idea to create strong, genuine bonds with them whenever possible. What are some of the ways you forge these relationships with your coworkers? Please share in the comments!

Meredith Castin, PT, DPT, is the founder of The Non-Clinical PT, a career development resource designed to help physical, occupational, and speech therapy professionals leverage their degrees in non-clinical ways.