This one's for the working parents
Updated: Mar 3
I have 2 questions for you: Who are the people closest to you? And, who are the people you spend most of your time with?
I never thought to compare the answers to these two questions, not until I read "Wired to Connect"* by Dr. Amy Banks. The fact that these two lists of names are usually quite different, as well as the potential implications of that for our mental health and well-being, made me think about the make-up of my own social/professional circle in a completely new way.
Who did I have around me every single day? How did these people affect me, or rather, how did I allow them to affect me? Could I call these people 'friends?' Did I feel like they wanted good things for me? Did I even like them? Did they even like me...?
"When I began using relational assessments, I would tell people to perform the assessment based on the most important relationships in their lives. Then I realized that when we think of the people who are most important to us, it's instinct to pick out just one or two of the highest-quality relationships. Yet those relationships aren't necessarily the ones that have the most effect on us. In reality, most people have a much wider network of acquaintances who leave a mark on their relational templates. And the more time you spend with someone - no matter whether the relationship is good, bad, strained, or workaday - the more it shapes your brain." Wired to Connect, pg. 91
This idea really was mind-blowing to me. Just like the discovery of a new way of looking at an object that you have seen a million times before can be. It was a much-welcome eye-opener, but a scary one none-the-less, because, if I were to discover that the people who were most present in my life were not doing great things for my psycho-emotional health, then what would I do? In my case, several of these relationships eventually came to an [unpleasant] end, but that's not the point of this article. The real point is - workplace relationships and workplace satisfaction. For parents, in particular.
Professionally, I was never heavily focused on or interested in occupational/organizational psychology, since I always considered it to be an entirely separate and unrelated field with no connections to individual health and well-being. Yes, I know. How clueless was I? In more recent years, with the drastic changes in not only our workplace culture but our very relationship to our work, I started paying more attention, and found the most recent Gallup pole incredibly concerning: their researchers found that 2/3 of working parents struggle with their social well-being. So, in the population of about 1.8 million workers whose data was processed for this meta-analysis, a staggering number of about 1.2 million were feeling socially unwell.
Viewing these findings through the prism of Dr. Banks' work, we can assume that these parents either didn't have [m]any relationships at their workplace, or if they did, these were not high-quality relationships. Not as far as their brains were concerned. And what does the brain consider to be a high-quality relationship? One that enables you to feel safe, soothed and calm (read: not in a fight-or-flight state), one that makes you feel included, socially accepted, and like you belong, one that makes you feel seen, heard, and understood, and finally, one that feels stimulating and gratifying.
If you think about the relationships you have at work, does any of the above sound familiar? Do you have relationships that make you feel this way at work? Of course, even the best of relationships can't make us feel this way all day every day - that's simply impossible, verging on abnormal. But do they help you experience these 4 categories of psycho-emotional states most of the time?
What you may [rightfully] be asking right about now if they don't is: "OK, so what do I do about this?" I am a strong proponent of realism, and the idea that it's important to distinguish between what we can and cannot change in life. We can't hand out cookie-cutter advice and expect to solve everyone's problems with it because some people are genuinely stuck in a less-than-ideal work situation [which is putting it lightly for many], and they are simply not in a position of enough power to change much. This is particularly true for those who are parents, and have several mouths to feed and minds to educate. In such cases, we try to develop the best coping strategies we possibly can by helping people strengthen other relationships, find as many ways as possible to use and strengthen their character strengths, as well as develop solid self-care routines.
If you are lucky enough to have the power to create some change in your workplace relationships, I find the 4 categories [for which Dr. Banks uses the acronym CARE] I mentioned earlier to be a great starting point. Take some time to really consider the connection you have with the people you spend most of your working hours with. If these relationships are lacking some of that brain-pleasing spice, consider the adjustments that you yourself could make in order to make them better. Could you, perhaps, even become a close friend with some of these co-workers? And if you decide that you absolutely cannot, begin to think about the ways in which you could respectfully reduce your 'exposure' to these individuals.
This same approach can apply to personal relationships outside of work by the way, although the process of spring-cleaning your friendships [and potentially family relationships too] in this way will be far more painful.
And what are the recommendations given by those who carry out the research in workplace psychology? In a word - engagement. Both the Quartz article and a recent Greater Good Magazine article propose that feeling more energized, connected and supported is the surest path to building stronger relationships and, ultimately, greater workplace satisfaction [and productivity!]. Given that a separate study carried out by Gallup found that an overwhelming 87% of employees are not engaged with their work, it seems that we are in dire need of a workplace relationship overhaul.
A large majority of parents seem to be especially dissatisfied with the lack of close and meaningful friendships in the workplace, and I do believe that we need to pay them special attention. Why? Because they go home to parent little ones after work, the little ones who will one day grow up to themselves be colleagues, bosses, voters, partners, policy makers, teachers, and your next-door neighbors. A crucially important piece of research recently showed that hostile and disrespectful behavior in the workplace can lead parents to feel less competent and behave in more rigid, authoritarian and harsh ways with their children. And that is tragically sad.
So, yes - by all means, improve workplace relationships in order to improve productivity. But don't just do it because of that. Do it for a much more noble cause - do it to nurture the brains of parents, because those brains will then better nurture their children's.
*I don't make any money if you click on this link - I just think you really should read this book!