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Of all the things that living though a pandemic may have taught us, there is one that has the potential to reshape your life and it’s not handwashing.

We have learned how to protect ourselves from the risk of infection with good hygiene practices and physical distancing. We have learned that the goalposts of what to expect are constantly changing. We have learned how to manage our insecurity and uncertainty while fearing for our jobs, our children and our future.

The one thing that can help you successfully navigate the choppy waters ahead won’t be a stimulus package, it will be the strength of your relationships, those bonds of connection that provide us security, hope and optimism. Because;

If anxiety, depression or loneliness have been dogging you, your relationships will help hold you steadfast.

If you are finding it difficult to stay focused, motivated or to think clearly, it will be your relationships whose listening ear and empathy will help you determine your next step.

If you are worried about the road ahead, it will be your relationships that will guide you to see the opportunities that await.

Relationships matter

Research has shown the one thing that makes the biggest difference to our health and happiness is enjoying good close relationships. The director of the world’s longest-running study into adult development, Robert Waldinger shares how their data has shown how:

  • At age fifty, what determines how well you will age, isn’t your cholesterol level, it’s the how satisfied you are with your relationships
  • Our social network helps to buffer our mood even when we experience pain
  • Our close relationships protect our brains from cognitive decline
  • Having a greater number of social connections makes us happier, healthier and we live longer – remembering it’s the quality of the relationships that counts not the quantity

The rise of loneliness during Covid-19

When feeling lonely, it’s harder to make decisions, good or bad. It’s harder to find solutions to the challenges you are facing. It stifles imagination and impairs our ability to think well.

Worse still, loneliness kills.

It was estimated pre-Covid-19 that one in four Australians regularly experience loneliness. That number is believed (though we don’t have the data yet) to be higher as a consequence of lock-down and the requirement for prolonged periods of self-isolation. It’s contributing to our stress and increasing our risk of developing mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.

You can be lonely at work or in a marriage.

You can be lonely as a CEO or a homeless person living on the streets.

You can be lonely living in a remote area or in a big city.

Loneliness is the perception of feeling isolated from others and it does us great harm. Research from Brigham Young University found that weak social connections can shorten lives by 15 years, the equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Vivek Murthy former US surgeon general previously wrote about this social epidemic in the Harvard Business Review saying “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes, it was loneliness.”

Which is why reaching out and choosing to nurture and strengthen our social ties is more critical than ever during this time.

Fostering connection

Nurturing our relationships, especially with family and friends is hugely beneficial to lowering our stress levels, raising resilience and rekindling our sense of belonging.

You may be separated from family who live in different states or different countries, but the benefit of our technology provides us with the ability to reach out and connect to see and speak to our parents, our siblings and friends which is reassuring to both sides.

If your previous habit was to phone your Mum once or twice a month pre-Covid, you may have increased the frequency during lockdown to every few days. Saying hello, checking in that everything is alright, demonstrates your love and care and raises levels of oxytocin that strengthens human bonds.

Similarly, there may be friends you haven’t spoken to or connected with for a very long time, but who you now reach out to and rekindle your connection.

Working from home for some has meant learning how to operate as a team remotely. Again, technology has provided a means for teams to see and connect with each other regularly and is also a means for employers and business owner to check in to make sure every individual is doing OK.

At home with your partner and kids, this has been a time for many families to come together to share family meals and conversation. Things that previously seemed hard to do, because everyone was so wrapped up in the bubble of busy focusing on their own agendas.

Strengthening family ties in this way – going for a family walk, playing games and simply spending more time in each other’s company provides mutual support and makes us happier.

Working relationships

We spend over a third of our lives doing work. This used to entail going to an office. Our workplace relationships playing a vital role to our health and wellbeing as we often spent more time with our work colleagues than with our life partners – though this may now have changed for many.

Enjoying good relationships at work matters because it determines how much we enjoy our work, our discretionary effort and how long we are likely to want to stay in a particular role.

This is about inclusion and safety. In their book Wellbeing, Tom Rath and Jim Hartner share how having a best friend at work is associated with being up to x7 more engaged in your job. Not only that they also showed how every hour of social time keeps stress at bay.

 Maybe you’ve noticed yourself how you feel when you’re working alongside others you consider as friends – you’re more positive, more open-minded, more contributive and collaborative Work feels more like fun than a chore.

Nurturing connection at work

Have a dedicated chief connection officer or team who look at ways to help everyone get to know each other better and build buy-in from everyone.

Commence meetings that start with individuals sharing a positive outcome or something about themselves.

Encourage turn-taking and active listening in meetings to ensure all voices are heard (especially the quiet ones).

Where teams are working from home or there’s a mixture of in house and remote work schedule regular professional and more social catch ups. When the environment is psychologically safe, it feels OK to speak up and have deeper, more ‘real’ conversations.

Offer to help. If you can see a colleague is snowed under, offering to help in some small way will be greatly appreciated and forge a stronger bond

Nurturing yourself

If loneliness is getting the better of you, there are a number of small steps you can take to feel more connected to others.

Restrictions permitting, get out every day and interact with people you meet in the street, at the supermarket or in the park. Your best smile and a warm cheery hello are a great start.

Focus on your existing social network. Schedule in time every day to contact at least one person to talk to.

Choose to switch off from your technology for deeper more meaningful conversations with others. Have a zoom or phone call if a face-to-face conversation isn’t possible, rather than sending a text. Set up a virtual or real coffee catch up. Some social groups now regularly meet online, from book clubs to P.E., yoga and art classes – this helps to help you engage with activities you enjoy and the possibility of making new friends online.

Having a pet provides companionship and they are often delighted to have so much more of your company. Dog walkers have the advantage of increased social interaction as do their canine buddies. To live life to its fullest, to achieve all you are capable of, to enjoy good health, happiness and wellbeing takes effort and commitment on our part. But to be fully human and to truly thrive is a team effort and this is where your relationships matter.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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