No more colleagues and coworkers: Why you need friends at work

The social world can activate the stress response, or it can tone it down. The effects of these personal connections can be more soothing than an hour of meditation. – Esther Sternberg

The irony was not lost on Esther Sternberg. Here she was, a rheumatologist and internationally recognized expert on the connection between stress and auto-immune disease, struck down by inflammatory arthritis after spending several stressful years as a long-distance caregiver for her mother who had terminal cancer. Suddenly what had been a topic of academic study felt painfully, viscerally real.

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While busy moving into a new home, still grieving the loss of her mother, Esther heard a knock at her door. Her neighbors, a Greek couple, had dropped by to welcome her with a tray of traditional Greek food including dolmades and tzatziki (stuffed grape leaves with yogurt and garlic sauce.) They noticed her computer and papers strewn about asked Esther if she was a writer because they had always wanted a writer to stay with them in their cottage in Crete. Sternberg enthusiastically responded that yes indeed she was a writer — she was working on her first book The Balance Within — and so began the adventure that was to become the PBS special “The Science of Healing.”

“I had this a-ha moment that what I was doing back home was all wrong,” says Esther of the epiphany she had in Crete.

Living in a village where she was surrounded by people young and old, grandmothers who fed her delicious and healthy Mediterranean food and a pace of life that was much slower, Esther gave herself the gift of healing through quiet contemplation, gentle physical activity and, most of all, social connection. In Crete, Esther was embraced by a rich social network that gave her comfort, setting off a cascade of friendly neurochemicals that acted as a buffer to the stress response, and enabled the drugs she was taking for her arthritis to finally kick in.

Are relationships really that powerful?

A recent study of over 3,000 people in Britain found that one factor matters more than money or even the nature of the work itself when it comes to career satisfaction: the people we work with. Science backs up our tribal instincts.

“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” says Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard study of adult development, the longest study of adult life and happiness.

Aside from getting sufficient sleep, there is nothing more important to your wellbeing than the quality of your relationships. Long after this week’s paycheck disappears into a cloud of forgotten transactions, you will still have your work friends to complain about how the month seems to last longer than the money. Friends buffer the stress response and friends give work meaning, so why aren’t companies doing everything they possibly can to cultivate connection?

Some companies are recognizing that relationships improve performance, engagement, and retention. For example, Oracle has set up a supportive “Class of” training program where the environment nudges new sales recruits to create best friends one celebratory cowbell ring at a time. But in the absence of a supportive employer, the onus is on us to embrace the indisputable fact that relationships matter. It’s time to redefine career success by the number of close friends we’ve made rather than our pay grade.

It would help if we start thinking of the people we work with, not as “colleagues” or “coworkers” that sound as cuddly as paper clips, but as friends or potential friends. And if we can’t find a friend where we work, that should sound the alarm that we’re working in the wrong place. Every day we have choices to make about how we spend our time, whether we ask a question deeper than “How are you?” and really listen to the response, or take a cup of coffee to the person working next to us for no reason at all. There are shortcuts on spreadsheets, but no way to hack a work relationship to make it grow faster.

But an investment in friendship at work always pays off, and sometimes in unexpected ways. A Carnegie Mellon study of stress and susceptibility to the common cold found paradoxically that people who had more different kinds of social interactions during the day, presumably exposing themselves to more and varied pathogens, had a lower incidence of illness.

As Esther Sternberg learned firsthand in Crete when her neighbor’s daughter who was blind in one eye offered to be her legs and help her walk to the beach if Esther would lend her sight, positive relationships can be the force that keeps us moving forward, the net to catch us if we stumble, and protection from the harmful effects of stress.

If you want to positively affect your wellbeing on the job, commit an act of friendship.

Lynne Everatt is a recovering MBA, LinkedIn Top Voice in management and culture, and nominee for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour for her first book, E-mails from the Edge, a novel with the theme of workplace mental health. She is a former careers columnist for Canada’s largest newspaper, The Globe and Mail. An ardent advocate for mental health through physical fitness, Lynne is a certified personal trainer who has completed two sweaty half-marathons and a marathon six minutes and twenty-three seconds of stand-up at the Absolute Comedy Club. She served for three years as President of the Board of Directors of the women’s shelter Interim Place where she met and became friends with co-author Addie Greco-Sanchez of The 5-Minute Recharge. Connect with Lynne on LinkedIn and Twitter. Together, Lynne and Addie want to make the world a mentally healthier place through their friendship.

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