Robert Waldinger is director of the Harvard Study, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School, and co-author of the book The Good Life, which is due out in January. We previewed Waldinger’s upcoming book, which has a chapter on the keys to thriving in the workplace, and asked him what at work really matters for health and happiness. That’s a question many organizations are interested in answering, amid concern about burnout, employee wellbeing, and the different challenges of remote and hybrid work.
Here is a transcript of our conversation, edited lightly for clarity:
The Harvard Study of Adult Development focuses on what really matters to people's health and happiness. What matters in the workplace?
What we find and what now many other studies find is that relationships matter a lot in the workplace. Gallup has done a lot of research that finds—and many other studies do as well—is that the question, 'Do you have a friend at work? Do you have someone you can talk to about your personal life?' is hugely important. Only 30% of people say they have a friend at work. And those people are so much more likely to be engaged in their jobs. They're so much better performers, they're less likely to leave the jobs they're in. We find this in our study, that people care a lot about their relationships at work when they're younger.
They often care both about friendships but also about mentors. Is anyone watching out for you? Is anyone trying to help you find your way as you go through? And then many of our people, when they looked back on their lives and asked what they were proudest of—say when they were in their eighties—said, ' was a good mentor at work. I really fostered some young people's careers.'
It started with Erik Erikson, this idea of generativity, this idea that as we grow older we start to care more about younger generations. Not just as parents. We start caring about whether there are younger people who I want to mentor. Are there causes I really want to further in the world? And that's where relationships turn out to be really important for older adults working with younger people at work. So at all stages, these connections really matter. And as we know, you spend more of your waking hours at work than you do doing anything else for most of us. So it's not as though there's a separation between work and life. That's a really artificial distinction. Work is a lot of life for most of us.
Are there practices that organizations can put in place to contribute to people making friends at work and mentoring other people?
One of the things they find is that it really needs to start at the very top, that it's not just some HR people saying we want to foster relationships and wellbeing. It really needs to be leadership, CEOs. In the Gallup survey, half of all CEOs said they were lonely. So this is a big deal and it's a personal deal. So partly it's making the case to leadership in organizations that not only will people be happier, but the bottom line will be better if you do this. Because the fact is that if the upper echelons of leadership don't support it, it's not going to happen. You have that old saying, 'Culture eats strategy for lunch.' If you don't set a culture in which people say this is really important, it's not going to happen.
Do you have any advice for how to encourage friendships at work?
One thing is physical spaces. It's why the watercooler became this iconic place, why the coffee machine, the snack bar, as well. My son used to work at Wayfair and they had a great snack wall and everybody would gather around the snack wall. What the research shows is that if people have repeated casual contact, they'll often strike up personal conversations and gradually, perhaps with a few people, have more meaningful conversations. So it's repeated casual encounters—you can set up spaces physically to encourage that.
The other thing I think is that you can literally do things in meetings that promote it. Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general, has a staff meeting where every time one person starts the meeting by sharing something about their personal life, what they love or a hobby or something cool. He found that step is their favorite part of the meeting. You could build it in to your meetings: What is something you love that most people don't know about?
You identified physical spaces as a key ingredient. Are there equivalents that can fill that function virtually? Or does it instead reinforce the idea that people do need to spend time together regularly, even if it's not five days a week?
Nobody really knows the answer to that question yet. There's a lot of research that needs to be done on this. We know that in-person interaction provides things that you don't get virtually. If you think about it, emotion is contagious and so much of emotional communication gets filtered out in remote meetings, in remote contexts. This is one area of research. What are the aspects of nonverbal communication that get filtered out? Particularly affect emotionally.
What we do know is that companies are bringing together their workers at least sometimes because the in-person interaction seems to make people feel more bonded, more like a team. It's harder to feel like a team, to feel like a tribe on Zoom. Maybe you do things like the Vivek Murthy thing of, even on Zoom, for the first five minutes Kevin's going to tell us about this cool thing he does when he's not at work or he's going to tell us about his kids or whatever it might be. You could at least try it and see what it's like.
There's a persistent burnout epidemic that people link to their work. What does your research say about how organizations can address that and try to prevent it?
Our research doesn't address it directly, it's not a study of burnout. But I can tell you about the conditions of human thriving that are probably relevant to burnout.
We know that people talk a lot about boundaries, that this culture of always being on, of you'll respond to my email at 10pm or on Sunday morning—that culture is a recipe for burnout. Because we know that everybody needs to step away from work. They need to know that there is time when they're just not on. Obviously if you are a parent of young kids, that's hard because there's almost never a time when you're not on. But even then, think about how precious nap times used to be. We know from our study that people need these times to replenish, where they know they are not at anybody's beck and call. We know there's this culture in some organizations that the person who's last to leave the office is the most dedicated, the hero, the strongest worker. And we know that that does not correlate to better performance. In many cases it's the reverse, that the people who can go home at 5pm and replenish are often better from nine to five. So a lot of it is looking at workplace cultures and seeing, is this really the unspoken standard that we're setting that you want to be the last to leave, you want your boss to see that you're staying late?
This idea of having boundaries, having time to replenish is not just something that you want to pay lip service to. It's something you really want to codify if you will. They had to do this in medicine. When I was coming up in medicine, I was in the hospital sometimes all night every second night. And then would go home and sleep one night and then work in the hospital for 36 hours. We learned that actually that killed people, that it was dangerous for patients and dangerous for doctors. And it took lawsuits to change that system so now the residents I train cannot be in the hospital after they've been on call for a certain number of hours. They are forbidden by law.
Relative to the last over 80 years that your study has been ongoing, how would you characterize our moment in terms of the state of wellbeing and the awareness of and the proactivity in addressing it?
There's more awareness partly because the culture is more interested in that, particularly as we're not in this phase of expansion where we're going to do better economically than our parents, if we just did the right things and worked hard. Everybody's beginning to say, 'Wow, that isn't the way life goes for most people anymore.' You can't assume that you're going to do better than your parents did. You can't even assume you're going to be doing as well. We also know that economic wellbeing, once you get your basic needs met, isn't correlated with happiness. And all that has made a lot of people say, 'Wait a minute, what really matters? And what does foster my wellbeing and the wellbeing of my family? 'So people are more skeptical of the ideal for work, which is that you go to work, you find your profession, you find your work, you stay at your job for 40 years, you get your gold watch, you have a really nice secure retirement, and all is good.
The other thing that has changed is how often people change jobs, how much less job stability there is than there used to be. My understanding is that there isn't the same culture of taking care of employees. That if you do work, there's some sense that you're going to have a steady job and you're going to have a pension. And essentially if you do your job, we're going to take care of you. The sense that institutions, organizations will be loyal has changed. So people can't expect that a boss or an institution will be their safety net, will have their back if they get into trouble, or even if the company gets into trouble. Whether it was really reality in the past I don't know, but certainly the perception has changed.
One of the things we know from our research on attachment is that a sense of being securely attached—often we think about it in terms of another person, but it can also be to an institution, that feeling like they'll take care of me, they have my back—is a really essential component of wellbeing, of feeling OK in your life. I think that historically has changed over the last 50 years.
If you just think about the gig economy and the increase in companies specifically saying that people who spend most of their work days working for them are not employees...
Exactly and you're on your own. Isn't it great? And look at all the freedom you've got. For some people that freedom is way more important. But for other people it's like no health insurance, no pension, no attachment.
Research that Google and others have done suggests that psychological safety is the foundation for effective teams. Given your research, what is your perspective on that?
It absolutely relates. Because this idea of secure attachment is about safety. It's a sense that I'll be okay. There's no danger out there. Because if you think about it, when you feel under threat, you close down, you get more cautious. You don't take risks. You don't let yourself be vulnerable when you don't have to. That's the way we're built and it's actually the way we should be built. It's adaptive. So if you don't feel safe in a job, if you don't feel safe with a boss or a coworker, you close down. We know that a lot of the most creative activity happens when people don't feel threatened. This is Amy Edmondson stuff, that it absolutely stands to reason that when you feel safe, you do more creative work and you're more engaged. I think it is Stanford Business School where they've done case studies about this where you see that authoritarian, demanding bosses get high performance in the short term because people are afraid. And then they get lower performance in the long term, because people withdraw, they resent the management style, and they don't give what they're capable of giving because they don't want to be vulnerable. You just cover your butt if you have an authoritarian, critical manager. So psychological safety makes total sense. Many people feel that everything I'm saying is total bullshit and mushy stuff. And it's gonna lead to weakness. There are people who hate what I'm saying. But if you believe in data the research shows this to be the case.
This is where I put on my shrink hat on: if you came from a home where you had authoritarian parents and you thought, 'boy they toughened me up and that was good for me,' that's how you view the world. And that's how you might arrive as a manager in a company and say, 'look, this is what works.' So depending on where you come from in your life, it can look like that's the way the world ought to work.
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