The image of trees being whipped back and forth during a storm is an appropriate analogy for humans weathering especially stressful seasons in life. It was on my mind as I followed the coverage of Hurricane Ian and the destruction it left in its wake at the same time I was reading new research that came out on rising burnout among physicians. I thought of how those in healthcare have been battered by a fierce hurricane called the Covid-19 pandemic. They faced a powerful and unpredictable foe, one that shifted and adapted as it went along, one that was fatal to some it encountered and left others unscathed. Shaken and tested by what must have felt like an unrelenting storm in the first year, some in healthcare were able to persevere and remain standing strong and some fell. Still others are upright, but for how much longer?
Hurricane Ian toppled many sturdy-looking trees, exposing their roots. Because their root systems were insufficiently deep and wide to anchor the trees, they were vulnerable to wind bursts, especially if the ground was overly-saturated with water. Trees with shallow and tight root systems tended to blow over; trees with deep and wide root systems were more likely to stay standing because their well-developed root systems made them resilient to cope with the stress.
The strongest and most resilient trees have roots that are interconnected with roots of other trees around them. I’ve learned that trees with interconnected root systems have been shown to support one another, not only providing a strong anchor of support against hurricane-force winds, but also through moving nutrients from strong trees to trees that are struggling.
I am in awe of healthcare professionals who have remained in the profession through the pandemic. Many are weary yet they remain standing and doing the important work of serving the health needs of people in their communities. Still, I am concerned for them.
After studying clinician wellbeing and resilience, the National Academy of Medicine recommended six essential elements to support clinician wellbeing, one of which is cultivating a culture of connection and support. Although these elements came out of the context of healthcare, they are relevant to every organization that recognizes the seriousness of burnout and wants to take steps to improve employee engagement and well-being. Because my expertise is in cultivating a culture of connection, and I believe it is presently the most urgent need, I will focus my comments on that element.
Seeing your organization as a living and relational organism
There is a flipside to an article I wrote about how cultivating a culture of connection provides an extraordinary opportunity to win the war for talent and it is this: If leaders don’t take action to help reduce stress and improve workplace social environments, people are going to break down. The current high levels of stress and disconnection (loneliness and social isolation) in our society are going to have a catastrophic human cost.
We need to change our view of organizations. The people who make up our organizations are not cogs in a machine, replaceable and expendable parts churning out whatever the product may be. If they are treated in a way that makes them feel controlled, unimportant, underappreciated or invisible, many will struggle because of a lack of connection. Their attitude, energy and productivity will suffer.
In my mind’s eye, I’m seeing the human cost of less-than-healthy work cultures as a forest with many fallen trees. Like a tree, we need to be in a healthy environment in which our roots can grow deep and wide so we can flourish and blossom. To be truly engaged, we must feel connected to and supported by the “trees” around us as well.
Research over recent decades clearly shows that the social environment we are in has a profound effect on us. From a biological standpoint, connection improves the cardiovascular, endocrine and immune systems’ performance. Matthew Lieberman, a leading neuroscientist, refers to connection as a “superpower” because it makes humans smarter, happier and more productive.
In contrast, research has found that disconnection is unhealthy for individuals. Loneliness is associated with poorer cognitive performance. Loneliness may impair executive control and self-regulation so that we are more impulsive. Loneliness is associated with substance abuse, depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation. Given these findings, it follows that researchers found greater loneliness leads to poorer task, team role and relational performance.
Allowing others to see into you
In our American culture that prizes individualism, we are reluctant to show what might be perceived as weakness or burden others with our problems so we often push on alone. I used to think that way earlier in my career but now I know better. Fixing our broken workplace cultures may require a change in our own mindset. We need to be intentional about developing supportive relationships that go beyond a surface level.
There are many ways to go about this. I would recommend beginning by having someone or a group of people with whom you can share some of the positives and negatives you experience each week. The simple act of sharing our positives and negative experiences calms our nervous systems and shifts brain activity to the cortex where we make rational decisions. In other words, if we allow others to see what we are thinking and feeling, we feel better and we make better decisions.
As I explained in Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding, mutual empathy is a powerful connector that is made possible by mirror neurons in our brains. When we attune to the emotions of others, it makes them feel connected to us. When we attune to their positive emotion, it enhances the positive emotion they feel. When we attune to their pain, it diminishes the pain they feel. In other words, the “highs” feel higher when others join you in your joy or excitement and the “lows” feel less low when others are with you in times of pain or loss.
Jason Pankau, a friend of mine, once told me that he thought of intimacy as in-to-me-see. That’s what we must do on a regular basis: allow others to see inside of us. Those close friendships are the ones in which you feel a level of trust that allows you to be even more open.
My hope is that these thoughts I’ve shared will encourage you to think about your own “root system” and how you will strengthen your connections with your colleagues at work and also with your family and friends in your community.
Why not take the first step and reach out to a few people and ask them to meet you for coffee or to go on a walk? As you get to know them, ask them about their highs and lows over the last week and share yours. Listen closely. Here’s an important tip: Don’t try to solve their problems unless they ask for your advice. By engaging in the simple act of conversation, you will be developing and deepening the unseen root system that will make you and those you connect with smarter, happier, more productive and more resilient.