The power of relationships – a key to better mental health and a better life

At work and at home, relationships can be both the principal cause of stress and an antidote to it, while also being the crucial key to a better life.

Stress in relationships

As the leader of a company focused on building stronger teams, I read a lot about the power of relationships.

So it was with great interest that I saw the results from the world’s longest scientific study of happiness and an article on the hidden toll of microstress. Both reached the same conclusion – that human relationships can be the principal cause of stress and an antidote to stress, while also being the crucial key to better mental health and a better life.

Relationships, mental health and life

In ‘The Hidden Toll of Microstress’, published in Harvard Business Review, the authors highlighted that one of the most interesting insights from their research was that ‘while people are the cause of microstress in your life they are part of the solution too’. They found people who were best at coping with microstress made a conscious effort to shape their lives to have more diverse connections with people.

“Good relationships keep us healthier and happier. Period”

Robert Waldinger

Quite separately, in their book titled The Good Life, based on hundreds of personal stories tracked in a Harvard study that currently spans more than 80 years, Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz said ‘one thing continuously demonstrates its broad and enduring importance: Good relationships‘. He continues;

Robert Waldinger’s Ted talk on The Good Life.

‘In fact, good relationships are significant enough that if we had to take all eighty-four years of the Harvard Study and boil it down to a single principle for living, one life investment that is supported by similar findings across a wide variety of other studies, it would be this: Good relationships keep us healthier and happier. Period.’

They’re referring to the power of relationships in all their forms – friendships, romantic partnerships, families, sports partners, club members and, of greatest relevance to our business, co-workers. All contribute to a happier, healthier life.

Let’s first look at the issue of stress.

Stress versus microstress

According to the World Health Organization stress is defined as ‘a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation. Stress is a natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats in our lives. Everyone experiences stress to some degree.’ The study mentioned in the HBR article was based on interviews of 300 people from 30 global companies conducted between 2019 and 2021.

“It’s not stress that kills us, it’s our reaction to it”

Hans Selye

Most of these high-performers didn’t realise that their lives were ‘feeling out of control or had pushed them in directions not aligned with who they set out to be’. But gradually, through the interview, they began to acknowledge that they were struggling.

Microstress and its impact on relationships
An example of a microstress and its immediate effects. HBR

Everyone experiences stress to some degree. It a part of life. In fact The Good Life reminds us that “Life is a process. It includes turmoil, calm, lightness, burdens, struggles, achievements, setbacks, leaps forward, and terrible falls“.

We all recognize and have sympathy for stress.

While most of us are familiar with stress,microstress is far less obvious.

According to the HBR paper, ‘It’s caused by difficult moments that we register as just another bump in the road – if we register them at all. Microstresses come at us so quickly and we’re so conditioned to just working through them that we barely recognise anything has happened…

Microstresses are small moments of stress that seem manageable on their own.

The paper identifies many different sources of microstress clustered into three broad categories, which have different effects. These are microstresses that:

  1. drain your capacity to get things done: this can include misalignment between collaborators on their roles or priorities, uncertainty about others’ reliability, unpredictable behaviour from a person in a position of authority etc
  2. deplete your emotional reserves: these may include pressures such as feeling responsible for the success and wellbeing of others, confrontational conversations, people who spread stress and political manoeuvring
  3. challenge your identity: these may include things that force you to pursue goals out of alignment with your personal values or attacks on your self-confidence, sense of worth or control and negative interactions with family, colleagues or friends.

Interestingly, the authors suggest that conventional advice for improving our wellbeing – such as mindfulness, meditation or gratitude – may also hurt because these tactics build one’s ability to endure more microstress.

I don’t agree with an ‘either or’ approach to the techniques of dealing with any kind of stress. However, the authors suggest some strategies that can make a difference in microstress levels:

  • Push back on microstress in concrete practical ways.
Epictetus - don't sweat the small stuff

For example, learn how to say ‘no’ to small asks, manage technology and its interruptions more effectively and readjust relationships to prevent others from putting microstress on you.

  • Be attuned to the microstress you cause others.

When we create microstress for others, it inevitably boomerangs in one form or another. For example, think about the last time you snapped at a colleague, partner or friend.

  • Rise above.

Learn to keep things in perspective. Let the things that bother you roll off your back.

As far back as AD 55, Epictetus is credited with saying ‘when we obsess over things that fall outside of our control, we make ourselves miserable’ – more recently translated as ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’.

The power of relationships

The authors of these disparate studies unite on a life-changing insight: the power and importance of human relationships in our lives.

The Good Life suggests that ‘…if you’re going to make that one choice, that single decision that could best ensure your own health and happiness, science tells us that your choice should be to cultivate warm relationships’.

The book also mentions the often-overlooked opportunities for connection in the workplace to leverage the power of relationships.

As noted in our blog article ‘Mental health in the workplace’, Gallup has repeatedly shown that having best friends at work is key to employee engagement and job success.

Employees who have a best friend at work are significantly more likely to:

  • engage customers and internal partners
  • get more done in less time
  • support a safe workplace with fewer accidents and reliability concerns
  • innovate and share ideas
  • have fun while at work.

Given that employees dedicate roughly one-third of their waking hours to a company, it is reasonable and important that companies respond with concern and solutions to support their mental health.

Kim Walker is founder and chairman of Aprais.