What Connects Us Makes Us Stronger
Last year, like many people, when lockdown hit I found myself switching from an office of 60-ish people to an office of one, my colleagues just faces on a screen. I’d not long switched jobs and was still getting to grips with things. I was also trying to fit a 30 hour a week job into the 15 hours a week in which I didn’t have an additional colleague in the room, the two-year-old sort who jogs up and down at your side suggesting that we do some painting, watch Mr Tumble, bake some cakes, play trains etc all at the same time, while you’re grappling with a really complicated and inexplicably broken spreadsheet. It wasn’t long before I gave up trying to do anything work-related when that particular colleague was around.
The thing that anchored me in my working hours was my manager. Every Monday we would use our catch-up time to just be human beings. We spoke about our lives in and outside of work, we met each other’s kids and partners, we talked about things and people that really mattered to us, we laughed, we cried. She helped me to figure out answers to bits of work I was struggling with but more than that, she gave me space to just be.
And miraculously, even with chaos all around, while I had those catch ups, I continued to keep my head above water. I even managed to achieve things.
All that changed when a restructure meant that my team gradually ceased to exist. Within an hour of handing over line management of my last direct report I was signed off sick. I was as surprised as anybody, it had crept up on me. But looking back there was a clear correlation between my rising stress levels and my diminishing social connections at work.
The fact is, our wellbeing fundamentally depends on other people. We are communal creatures, and our ability to thrive depends on people around us and the quality of the relationships we have with them.
People at risk of electric shock feel less pain when they are holding the hand of a partner or good friend. They are better equipped to regulate their wellbeing with the support of those they love and who make them feel safe. Children who are “securely attached” to at least one primary care giver are less likely to suffer psychological or behavioural difficulties later in life. The power of that connection gives us a strengthened sense of self-worth and security. It enables us to take risks, to push ourselves, to be brave, because we have someone to return to if we need help, physical or emotional.
In both of those cases, we’re able to deal with difficult situations because we’re not doing it alone.
On the other hand, feeling unloved has an immensely detrimental effect on us; according to writer Shawn Achor in his book “The Happiness Advantage”, if you have a difficult relationship with your boss, your risk of heart disease increases by 30%. That’s the equivalent of eating a full English breakfast 3-4 times a week. Even as a vegetarian, I think I’d rather have the breakfast.
In Western societies, we are trained to think primarily in terms of ‘individuals.’ Our education system tests individual performance, we recruit people to organisations based on individual competencies and judge them through individual performance appraisals. And yet, we rarely succeed in isolation from others. As last year showed, my performance at work directly correlates with the relationships I have with the people around me.
We need to stop treating people as isolated individuals. We are the product of our interactions and relationships – they make us who we are. We exist in and because of delicate, nuanced, interconnected networks.
Failure to recognise these facts is fundamentally dehumanising. It’s harder than ever now to ignore that people have personal lives, and that those personal lives will interact with those professional lives every moment of every day. I’d love us to keep a hold of that awareness even if, come 2022, the proportions of people working from home had returned to what they were pre-pandemic.
I believe that when we examine our organisational cultures, we must consciously build spaces into our workplaces in which we can simply be human with one another.
If those catch-ups I had with my manager back in lockdown #1 had been just about checking off the progress and blockers to pieces of work I think I would have sunk after just a few months. Human connections matter.