Challenge #3: Feeling connected
Watch the video, keep your journal handy and set aside the 10 minutes needed to complete the challenge. Good luck and we’ll be back soon with the next challenge!
Let's take a look at the science...
Research by Robertson Cooper on the key factors that help people to have a Good Days at Work has identified four main elements – positive emotions, achieving tasks, feeling connected and performing meaningful work. Each individual element has an important role to play so it’s worth looking at the scientific research that reveals the importance of each element. The information below focuses on the research related to feeling connected.
Feeling connected and Good Days at Work
Fundamentally people are social animals and research has shown that building and retaining good relationships with others contributes to overall health and wellbeing. Employees who have good relationships at work generally perform better and are happier with their work.
There is strong research evidence to suggest that the impact of social connectedness reaches beyond emotional wellbeing (important though that is) and extends to physical health and, in the longer-term, mortality. People who feel more connected to others have fewer mental health problems, feel better about themselves (higher self-esteem); they also tend to be more cooperative and trusting with others. People who are lower down on the overall connectedness continuum show poorer levels of mental and physical health and are more likely to behave in an anti-social way – leading to even lower levels of connectedness.
The evidence that poor social relationships is associated with physical health problems is devastating and underlines the important role that connectedness plays. A large-scale review of the research evidence found that poor social relationships were associated with a 29% increase in the risk of coronary heart disease and a 32% increase in the risk of stroke. The impact of low social connectedness is severe and there is evidence that extremely low connectedness is associated with a 26% increased risk of premature death – social isolation is associated with a 29% increased risk. A wide range of mental and physical health problems are linked to low connectedness including Type 2 diabetes, susceptibility to cold viruses and upper respiratory illnesses as well as with health-related lifestyle behaviour (Holt-Lunstad, 2021).
Shockingly, the strength of the impact of connectedness is comparable with and in some cases greater than other, much better known, risk factors for mortality (e.g., obesity, physical inactivity, air pollution). In short then, being socially connected is a protective factor and being socially disconnected is a risk factor for premature death and illness (Holt-Lunstad, 2021).
The connections that people have with each other, and the benefits conferred by these connections depend on three components: structure (e.g., the size of the social network); function (e.g., the availability of support) and quality (e.g., satisfaction with the relationships). Social relationships at work and outside work are all important. For some people their non-work social network may be very positive and may be the most important sources of connectedness. Most of us, however, spend a large proportion of our time interacting with work colleagues and these interactions inevitably form a significant part (positive or negative) of our social network.
The structure, function and quality of relationships will vary across different work settings. For example, someone may have a distant and unapproachable boss with many co-workers so that the quality of relationships and the depth of support from co-workers and boss may be relatively poor even though there is an extensive network of people. Another setting may involve fewer co-workers and a more engaged boss, resulting in much better connectedness and higher levels of support and satisfaction.
Taken overall, social connectedness may be seen as a wide continuum, such that high levels of all three components (structure, function and quality) are associated with many benefits and low levels of all three confer very limited benefit – in fact, as shown above, low levels are linked with poor mental and physical health outcomes.
It’s not difficult to see why demanding jobs can be more fulfilling and healthier if you think about when you feel at your best at work. For most people this is not when there is no pressure and nothing to do (that just makes time drag) – it’s when a difficult task has been completed successfully. The positive feelings associated with doing something well are much greater if the task is challenging. No pressure, no challenge and an easy task don’t provide the positive emotional lift. Of course, if the pressure is too great or the task is impossible to achieve because of insufficient resources or lack of control then the emotions triggered will be far from positive and will have a damaging and unhealthy impact on the job holder.
Obviously experiencing positive emotions is important in itself. We all want to feel good but positive emotions have a much wider role to play in overall health and work performance.
Overall positive psychological wellbeing is in large part related to the balance of positive/negative emotions that a person experiences. Extensive research has established a clear link between positive psychological wellbeing and both physical health and behaviour at work.
Connectedness at work – with whom?
Broadly, there are two different groups of people that are important in social connectedness at work: supervisors and co-workers.
Each person’s relationship with his or her boss is important for both work performance and a sense of wellbeing and there is clear evidence to show that the relationship with a supervisor is important. For most people the relationship with the boss will be different from the relationship with co-workers – and this is an important distinction.
Supervisors exercise a certain amount of power and to some degree are seen to provide the voice of the organisation. This means that when it comes to factors such as job security and promotion or career progression the social relationship with the supervisor is most relevant. In some circumstances social and emotional support from a supervisor may be relevant but the primary type of support provided by the boss is likely to be more instrumental, maybe by providing information and clarifying the support available from the organisation. Employees are happier if they feel that the organisation genuinely cares about their wellbeing. In many respects the immediate supervisor is the conduit for the concern an organisation shows for its employees.
Supervisors influence the level of demand (and therefore stress) that employees face at work. Obviously, it is incumbent on a supervisor to try to ensure that job demands are reasonable but, in any job, there may be times when pressure builds up – and it’s simply not practical to reduce workload. When this happens, the supervisor needs to provide both instrumental and emotional support. Another role for supervisors is to monitor and, if necessary moderate the relationships that exist between the members of their work group, to ensure that the relationships within the group are as positive and productive as possible.
Co-workers, by contrast don’t have the decision-making authority or work-based power to affect an employee’s feelings of job security or career progression; nevertheless, co-workers are important cogs in the network of work-based social relations.
Benefits of good work relationships
When relationships with co-workers and supervisors are positive there are several workplace benefits. The primary benefit for individual workers from good work relationships is enhanced wellbeing and positive emotions but several other aspects of work behaviour are also better when people are better connected in the workplace.
Workers who have good relationships with their supervisors are likely to perform better and also stay with the organisation for longer. Interestingly, workers with good relationships with their supervisor not only perform better in tasks that are formally part of their job (in-role behaviour) but also are more likely to go out of their way to support and assist in areas that are not formally part of their job (extra-role behaviour). In general, it does seem to be the case that support from supervisors has more beneficial impact on workers (in terms of reduced stress, better performance etc.) than co-worker support. As noted above, this is probably because supervisors have more decision-making authority and work-based power (Jolly et al., 2021).
In most settings, relationships with co-workers are likely to be much more frequent and in many work settings the primary source of social and emotional support for individual employees will be co-workers. In particular emotional support from co-workers fosters higher quality relationships, which in turn lead to better work outcomes and better levels of wellbeing. Although co-workers may not have the decision-making power of a supervisor there is some evidence that their support is particularly beneficial in times when job demands are higher than normal. Good relationships between co-workers can produce a virtuous circle, such that positive social and emotional support motivates workers to develop and maintain high quality relationships with others. Co-worker support and co-worker exchange are positively associated with psychological flourishing at work, which, in turn is linked to better job performance (Singh et al., 2019).
Positive relationships with co-workers enable employees to test and expand their views of what is happening at work. For example, co-workers provide important sounding boards in a range of areas, such as when evaluating the behaviour of supervisors, determining whether or not tasks are legitimate or exchanging and evaluating knowledge about the organisation (Jolly et al., 2021).
Improving and maintaining connectedness at work
Technology, workplace design and location all have an influence on work relationships. For example, the post-pandemic increase in home working or hybrid working presents challenges for work relationships and taking steps to ensure that relationships are allowed to flourish and develop positively is particularly important in the light of the reduced direct contact that workers experience in hybrid or home working contexts. The same applies to the use of technology and the design and layout of work spaces.
In the workplace, just like everywhere else people make mistakes and they may do something annoying. Forgiving other people when they make errors or do something annoying comes easier in situations where relationships are good (Cao et al., 2021). In fact, it’s possible to create a virtuous circle where forgiveness improves relationships, which, in turn lead to greater levels of forgiveness. It’s important to remember that forgiving mistakes does not mean ignoring them or failing to hold individuals to account!
As the above has made clear, a person’s health, wellbeing and work performance depends on forming and maintaining positive relationships with others. Unfortunately, some research has shown that people may be prone to underestimate how positively others will respond to attempts to initiate or build relationships. This can lead people to be reluctant to behave in ways that initiate and develop relationships. This may be particularly true in the workplace where individuals congregate on the basis of work requirements, rather than social preferences (Epley et al., 2022).
One final, strong message that the evidence on work relationships underlines is the importance that supervisors should assign to ensuring work relationships are as good as possible.
- Cao, W., van der Wal, R. C., & Taris, T. W. (2021). When Work Relationships Matter: Interpersonal Forgiveness and Work Outcomes. International Journal of Stress Management, 28(4). https://doi.org/10.1037/str0000192
- Epley, N., Kardas, M., Zhao, X., Atir, S., & Schroeder, J. (2022). Undersociality: miscalibrated social cognition can inhibit social connection. In Trends in Cognitive Sciences (Vol. 26, Issue 5). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2022.02.007
- Holt-Lunstad, J. (2021). The Major Health Implications of Social Connection. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 30(3). https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721421999630
- Jolly, P. M., Kong, D. T., & Kim, K. Y. (2021). Social support at work: An integrative review. In Journal of Organizational Behavior (Vol. 42, Issue 2). https://doi.org/10.1002/job.2485
- Singh, B., Selvarajan, T. T., & Solansky, S. T. (2019). Coworker influence on employee performance: a conservation of resources perspective. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 34(8). https://doi.org/10.1108/JMP-09-2018-0392