Do we all need a best friend at work for our well-being?

Seeing yesterday’s ONS research on Measuring National Well-being reminded me how important our working relationships are to our well-being. Eight hours a day, five days a week is a long time with our colleagues – I know that’s more time than I spend with my family and friends!

A study by Relate in 2014 found that employees are about as likely to have as much daily contact with work colleagues (62%) as they are with own children (64%). Just under half were more likely to have daily contact with their bosses than with their mothers (26%) or friends (16%).

I know from our CIPD research that relationships at work are a major influence on our sense of well-being. When you ask people about their job and whether they enjoy it, the first thing they talk about is the people – either that’s what makes their organisation a good place to work, or it’s the reason they want to leave.

Engagement surveys tend to ask whether we have a best friend at work, with correlations between positive colleague relationships and employee engagement. Yesterday’s ONS survey asked a similar question - 58% of people said they had at least one close friend at work, and 22% said they have three or more close friends. However, 42% of respondents said they didn’t count any colleagues as close friends.

From an employer’s point of view, if we’re happy at work then we’ll be more productive. Robertson Cooper cite workplace relationships as one of the 6 essentials of workplace well-being, which in turn affects business-level outcomes. In fact, their survey of over 40,000 UK employees found that good working relationships are a strong predictor of positive psychological wellbeing.

So what can employers do to help enrich the quality of relationships at work? Here are a few to think about:

  • Promote a supportive culture
    Do your employees feel supported at work and that their colleagues or manager will step in if needed? How approachable do employees find managers and leaders? Change has become a constant of organisation life and managers, in their dual role as both manager and employee, can find themselves under additional strain. They are navigating major change themselves as well as needing to look out for their team and we know that a support network is valued by employees at all levels.
  • Are managers rewarded for their technical or people management skills?
    Many studies have found that the quality of the relationships between managers and employees can significantly impact workforce satisfaction and productivity. What expectations do you set for management roles? Are they expected to be technical specialists with additional supervisory responsibilities, or is people management seen (and rewarded) as a central part of their role?

    A recent US study has looked directly at the impact of management quality on employee productivity.  Data was collected between 2006 and 2010 from over 20,000 employees in a large technology-based services company. The authors found that if a manager judged to be in the bottom 10% of the ability distribution was replaced by a manager in the top 10% of the ability distribution, the impact on output was about the same as adding an extra member to an existing nine-person team.
  • Address conflict promptly
    Workplace conflicts and difficult relationships are an inevitable part of working life, but dealing promptly with issues can stop things escalating into a real issue and help to repair relationships. If people are focused on dysfunctional or difficult relationships then that will distract them from work, and unresolved conflict can send a message to the wider workforce conflict is part and parcel of working there.

    Mediation can help nip a problem in the bud. It’s especially effective when used at the initial phase of any disagreement, before a conflict escalates. Early intervention can prevent both sides from becoming entrenched, and the difference turning into a full-blown dispute. If the disagreement is resolved early on, there is less chance of the working relationship breaking down irrecoverably. The guide the CIPD has developed with ACAS gives practical advice on using mediation.
  • Provide space for people to get to know each other
    One organisation I’ve worked with judged the quality of management relationships with their team in terms of whether they knew simple personal facts about their team members. I think there’s a grain of truth to this method as I’d expect my manager to know where I was going on holiday, ask me if I’d had a good time, know a bit about my family and where I lived.

In our day jobs it’s so easy to put our heads down and plough through our inbox. Opportunities to socialise give us the time and the space to get to know each other. My department had an away day yesterday to start planning our research strategy for the next operating year – it was a given that we would produce a plan, but what was really valuable was the time to interact with each other over lunch.

There’s a reason that relationships feature so strongly in great places to work surveys – we’re social creatures and having a sense of belonging to our team and a supportive organisation culture is an extremely powerful productivity driver.

¹ BLOOM, N., SADUN, R. and VAN REENEN, J. (2010) Recent advances in the empirics of organizational economics. CEP Discussion Paper No. 970, May.

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