As social beings, we are hardwired for connection. We are built to live in social systems and need relationships with other people to stay well. Yet the modern workplace is toxic as hell for the relationships most likely to support social health, familial health, and community.
In his most recent book, Dying for a Paycheck, Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer notes that health-destroying and life-threatening work environments exist everywhere — not just in dangerous workplaces like coal mines or construction sites. Today’s workers are often expected to be on the job 24/7, with little to no time off. Their days in the office stretch from before breakfast to long after the kids go to bed. Many travel relentlessly. All of this results in employees who might succeed at their day jobs but are increasingly sick, tired, and lonely.
The erosion of vibrant, healthy relationships at home and in community is a major contributor to our collective lack of wellness. Wellness at work needs to expand. We must acknowledge and validate that “our people” at home matter deeply to our overall ability to function well at work. Simply put, when we spend more time at work than we do with the people who love us, we do not thrive.
We know that the success our work cultures promote (more money, more things) does not actually make us happier or more successful. The Harvard Study of Adult Development followed 754 men over 75 years (perhaps the longest study of it’s kind) to see what keeps them healthy. The results are definitive and astounding. As current program director Robert Waldinger said in his 2015 TED talk, “The answers aren’t about fame or wealth or working harder. The clearest message we get from this study over 75 years is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period. “
But we keep working, working, working — at the expense of all of our other relationships. A study conducted by the Center for American Progress reports that the share of all professionals — women and men — working more than 50 hours a week has increased nationwide since the late 1970s.
Men have carried the burden of social isolation longer than women as primary breadwinners “married” to the office, but today women represent more than half of all workers and are profoundly impacted by the social costs of how they must work. As Anne Marie Slaughter wrote in her seminal 2015 story in The Atlantic, “Male leaders are routinely praised for having sacrificed their personal life on the altar of public or corporate service. That sacrifice, of course, typically involves their family.” Women persistently drop off in management in all industries and sectors, largely due to the demands of leadership precluding both the time and attention necessary to take care of others and the ability to be emotionally taken care of by the people around them at home.
I envision a crucial mindset shift that places social and community health at the center of wellness, with solid business practices that support them. The shift? If our home relationships (however we define them: children, parents, partners, friends) are well and taken care of, we will be productive and positive work contributors. If they are not, we are not. Use these five practices to take care of your social health, and learn what employers can do to support you.
1. Put your family and community first — really.
Women have long struggled with how to navigate work during child-bearing years, and despite advances in paternity leave offerings for men, many men do not take their allotted time. The fear of being ostracized for not being seen as serious about their work keeps most men from choosing to focus on their family after the birth or adoption of a child.
In organizations where family-friendly practices are evident for both men and women, leaders both verbally support the policies of flextime and walk their talk by visibly choosing family. And the payoff is huge. A seminal study of 527 U.S. companies, published in the Academy of Management Journal in 2000, suggests: “Organizations with more extensive work-family policies have higher perceived firm-level performance among their industry peers.”
Make your schedule in consideration of the times that matter at home (bedtime rituals, date nights, special events, activities), and stick to it. Model the way by discussing the choices you make to prioritize your family so that others can do the same. Talk about it, keep it at the forefront of how you plan your time, and demonstrate the priorities you are committed to, both work and the people at home who matter to your health.
2. Discuss the hard tensions.
What really interferes with our social health? The story is likely different for everyone, but nonetheless we must talk about it. Some may prioritize flexibility with time. Others may want to work remotely. Many seek a calibration between work and social relationships. That means leaving time for real engagement: date nights, holidays without interruption, volunteering, church, active movement, and family events.
Our learned response is often to hide, minimize, or stay silent about the needs we have for our relationships. We all walk around pretending we do not need or want anything outside of work. I remember, for example, being asked by a client to keep my breastfeeding baby out of view at an off-site event. But these problems do not only exist for parents or heterosexual employees. A gay single colleague once told me, “You think people don’t mention their need to take care of their marriage? Imagine talking out loud about your need to leave work on time to meet a first-time date. It is as if single or non-straight people have no important social needs outside of work!”
3. Be transparent about time expectations.
Does work ever end? Which deadlines require heroic effort, and which do not? Are there tradeoffs for extra time spent working, such as weekend travel or an intense project? Do we grant the space, time, support, and expectation that our social health matters and requires time away from work to engage with, be seen by, and love the people who fill us up and feed us?
Often, meetings can move, hours can flex, and work can be prioritized in a way that allows us to both meet our social needs and do the work that must be done. But we have to talk about it — clearly, directly, and often.
4. Understand that men need relationships, too.
The stoic, rugged, individualist white male culture of most European and North American businesses fosters a “go it alone” mindset that assumes each man is an island, capable of taking care of himself socially and emotionally (often with the premise that his basic needs are met by an at-home spouse who manages the domestic details). Our rates of addiction, cancer, heart disease, depression, suicide, and stress-related illness are evidence that independence and solitary movement through the world is bad for all of us.
When men start asserting that their relationships are a priority to their wellbeing and that these require space and time to be tended, how we roll at work will begin to change. For too many years, women have been the voices crying out for the need for flexibility, work-from-home options, family leave, and creative solutions, which makes it look like women are the only ones who suffer in the hands of our shared work-focused society. Isn’t it time we examined the needs men have for a life outside of work in which they are loved, supported, and cherished?
5. Ask for social health support.
Wellness includes our social health, and we should ask for support in this dimension of our lives. Most workplace wellness programs include gym membership, weight-loss programs, smoking cessation, and safety trainings. Some extend into general healthcare and employee assistance programs. What if they included programs and strategies to assist employees in proactively considering how they will tend their social lives outside of work?
Despite how we act, there is not an impenetrable barrier between our work and our home lives. Most of us think about and manage our social needs every single day: When will I meet my partner for dinner? Will I make the train to my high-school reunion after work on Friday? Another business trip, but it’s on my son’s birthday? It takes creativity to juggle it all, but wellness programs that equip us with tools to pay attention to our social health are critical.
The bottom line
Can we lay to rest the outdated notion that working hard means we give it all we have, leaving us empty, tired, and with nothing left for the relationships that sustain us? By courageously naming and paying attention to the health of our relationships, we become more capable, able, and motivated employees. We have a life outside of work, filled with people who get us and care for us and whom we love. When these relationships have the time and attention they need for us to feel connected, we can be focused at work and not distracted by our isolation, fear, or loneliness.