It’s well known that workplace culture directly shapes teams’ capacity for innovation and productivity, as well as workers’ overall sense of wellbeing. Now, new research indicates that solid workplace relationships – between managers and subordinates, as well as between colleagues – are a key piece in the worker-satisfaction puzzle.

In a survey of 5,902 U.S. workers, researchers at the Pew Research Center found that high satisfaction with workplace relationships plays a major role in workers’ overall satisfaction with their jobs – even in the face of dissatisfaction in other critical areas. “It is fair to say that satisfaction with workplace relationships, both with managers and with coworkers, is a significant predictor of overall job satisfaction,” says Juliana Menasce Horowitz, an associate director of research at the Center and a co-author of the worker satisfaction report. 

Pew’s survey adds to a robust body of research on the benefits of healthy relationships at work. Some of those benefits translate directly into worker performance. A sense of connectedness with colleagues and managers fosters a sense of shared mission and purpose which, in turn, can spark active communication, camaraderie, and innovation. What’s more, when work relationships blossom into genuine friendships, they contribute to employee happiness on and off the clock. 

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The implications are profound. According to a Surgeon’s General advisory report published this spring, “epidemic” levels of loneliness and isolation pose wide-ranging hazards to the health and well-being of individuals, organizations, and communities. On the flip side, “quality social support, social integration, and regular communication among co-workers of all levels are key in preventing chronic work stress and workplace burnout.” 

A happy and healthy – and not totally burned out – workforce is, of course, a worthy goal in and of itself. But employers and teams do stand to gain from a cascade of associated perks. The Surgeon’s General report lists several, including faster recovery and therefore less missed work following work-related injuries or illnesses, and improved creativity, engagement, and work quality. Workplace connectedness may even “influence career advancements, income, and overall economic stability,” according to the report. 

Rob Cross, the co-founder and director of the Connected Commons management research consultancy, has observed the link between relationships, happiness, and professional fulfillment firsthand. The discovery happened a few years ago, and almost by chance. Cross was conducting research for a book about effective collaboration, and on the lookout for mappable patterns that seemed to mesh with teams’ success. Social connectivity quickly emerged as a decisive factor. From there, he set out to learn how connectivity comes into play among individual workers and their teams.

“I was focusing on high-performing individuals and trying to understand what’s distinguishing those top-quartile performers across a bunch of great organizations,” Cross recalls. “I did 600 interviews with people from all of these places and focused on how connections in our lives have an impact on our health, on how we experience purpose in our lives, and on resilience.” 

What Cross observed was that the workers who were the happiest were also the most resilient against daily “microstressors,” the little interruptions and annoyances that punctuate our fast-moving, always-on day-to-day lives. These individuals were professionally driven and invested in their jobs, but they also nurtured hobbies and community. Most belonged to “at least two, and usually three” social circles outside of their professional lives and immediate families. Some belonged to running groups or reading clubs; others sang in their church choir. The common thread between them was not a commitment to hyper-achievement but, rather, their connectedness to others, which gave them patience and perspective.

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In order to support healthy relationships within the workplace, organizations need to also support their team members’ pursuits outside of work. Leaders should be proactive about ensuring that workers have the space and safety to nurture adequate work-life balance, and should model those boundaries in their own working lives. Self-care is a pillar of effective leadership.

Furthermore, it is essential that organizations encourage open, transparent communication that reinforces team members’ sense of psychological safety. This includes allowing space for emotions, and showing appreciation for colleagues; here at Atlassian, team members are encouraged to give their colleagues tokens of kudos for embodying company values. 

It’s also worth noting that, although workplace relationships are essential, other culture elements such as “satisfaction with day-to-day tasks, pay, and opportunities for promotion” are even stronger predictors of overall job satisfaction, Pew’s Menasce Horowitz says. But these attributes aren’t mutually exclusive. By investing holistically in all areas of workplace culture, organizational leaders add to the bedrock of trust from which healthy relationships – and healthy team members – can flourish.  

Research confirms the importance of healthy workplace relationships