What is the single best indicator of your success at work, ability to overcome challenges, and your longevity?  Take a guess. It’s not where you were educated, how much money you earn, or your IQ. The answer is your social support network. With so much riding on the quality and quantity of your interactions with others, you should prize and cultivate your relationships – both inside and outside the workplace – like your life depends on it, because it does.  

If You Want to Live a Long and Healthy Life, Focus on Your Relationships 

How do we know that your social network has such a huge positive impact on your longevity?  You can say thanks to Harvard University. Today, researchers at Havard are still conducting a very famous study started during the Great Depression called The Harvard Study of Adult Development.  This study originally tracked the physical and mental health of 268 college men, including President John F. Kennedy, from their sophomore year to their golden years.  It was eventually expanded to include the original participants’ offspring.  

“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships have a powerful influence on our health,” said Robert Waldinger, director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care. That, I think, is the revelation.”

If we know our relationships have as much effect on life expectancy as smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, and regular physical activity, you can imagine how our social ties affect our career success.  

Happiness at Work Also Increases Life Span

First of all, the environment where you spend the majority of your days at work can affect our health and life expectancy.  A study called the “Work-Based Predictors of Mortality: A 20-Year Follow-Up of Healthy Employees,” followed 820 workers’ medical histories over 10 years, controlling smoking, obesity and other health risks, and found that employees with weak social networks at work had significantly higher mortality rates. “Working in a very unfriendly and non-supportive environment takes its toll,” the survey said.  The reality is that being happy at work is good can extend the number of years you are on earth.  

Work Friends Reduce Stress 

Beyond your mortality, social support in the workplace will help you decrease your day-to-day stress levels.  This is why companies like Google encourage employees to eat as many meals together as possible in company-run cafeterias that are open all day and much of the night. This is also why we’ve seen a rise in the number of ping pong tables, gaming rooms, and stocked kitchens in offices around the world. The easiest way to combat the constant state of fight-or-flight that the modern mind encounters is to incorporate tiny boosts of positivity into our regular environment. Small but mighty positive interactions with your coworkers fight stress by returning your cardiovascular and endocrine systems to homeostasis, allowing you to balance yourself, rest, and continue working.  Connecting with others both during the workday and outside the office is essential to avoiding burn out.

Being Social at Work Boosts Performance

But socialization does more than helping us in times of stress.  If you want to not only survive a stressful job but thrive as a top performer, you best pay attention to how you interact with others.  In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins echoed this truth: “The people we interviewed from good-to-great companies clearly loved what they did largely because they loved who they did it with.”  For most people, nothing produces results like being part of a team of motivated individuals who are on the same page and expected to perform well. Being able to lean on those around us when we encounter an unexpected challenge at work also boosts our ability to create innovative solutions and persevere despite setbacks. Further, a person’s baseline mood, attitude, and emotions at work have a massive effect on individual and collective performance. In an interesting study by Dr Pentland, the Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT and the faculty director of MIT’s Digital Life consortium, researchers found that often infamous water-cooler chit-chat positively affects performance.   Often, indirect conversations are the best way for employees to collect information about each other and their work that they would not be able to gain otherwise.  

If You Want to Thrive, Invest in Your (Real)  Social Network 

Author Shawn Anchor summarized the importance of socialization at work in his book, The Happiness Advantage, by saying that “just as social support is a prescription for happiness and an antidote to stress, it is also a prime contributor of achievement in the workplace.”  If you’re a manager, you must understand that keeping people chained to their desks is a bad thing. The idle chit-chat that so many bosses despise is actually building relationships that support the company’s bottom line and each employee’s wellbeing.  “When we gathered together everything we knew about them about at age 50 (the Harvard study participants), it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old,” Professor Waldinger said in a popular TED Talk. “It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”  Across the board, studies have shown that all our closest personal relationships matter gravely. It’s time to put work into our relationships at work.

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