Building Healthy Relationships at Work

Work—it’s where most of us spend the majority of our time. So it’s no wonder that, regardless of your professional position, the relationships you have with your colleagues can play a major role in your overall health and happiness.

“Doing your work can take a tremendous amount of energy and focus,” says Sharon Alpert, L.I.C.S.W., a life management therapist at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass. “When you’re able to engage in a healthy way with your colleagues, it energizes and motivates you. It boosts your confidence, helps temper everyday stress and encourages positive thinking.” Though, difficult work relationships can take away from your ability to perform and have an impact on your wellness.

For example, if colleagues show lack of enthusiasm for an important project you’re managing, you may feel a lack of support and the quality of your work can suffer. And just like other stressors, that negativity can affect your sleep patterns, eating habits, exercise motivation and more. “When we carry this frustration, it can color our other relationships and experiences,” says Alpert. “We are so preoccupied by the trouble we’re having at work, that we miss out on the positive energy friends and family offer. It can even cause us to be on alert for the same negative messages at home, even when they aren’t there.”

Some healthy work relationships come naturally, while others take more effort. Some turn into friendships, while others remain strictly professional. Whatever the case, keep these suggestions in mind when nurturing a rapport with your colleagues:

Take the first step. Work relationships can sometimes be hard to spark, especially when you’re new to a job. “Ask someone for help with the printer, offer to take a coffee run, start a daily conversation with the person who sits next to you,” suggests Alpert. “Small interactions will help you learn about those around you—and help you begin to form connections with certain people.”

Make your connections positive ones. “You’re fortunate when you find people you really click with at work, but it’s important to look at what’s drawing you together,” says Alpert. Maybe you collaborate effectively with your boss because you listen to one another well. Or maybe you get along with your associate because you often share stories about your same-age kids. These are healthy bonds built on what’s good about your situation. “When you connect through negativity, it depletes your energy and reinforces a focus on what is not working,” says Alpert.

Offer what you want to receive… It’s the same lesson your mother taught you: Treat someone as you would like to be treated. When it comes to interacting with people at work, offering what you’d want out of the relationship—respect, thoughtfulness, optimism—is the best approach. “It takes practice, but if you’re aware of how you’re behaving and putting in the effort, it’s more likely to happen.”

…but manage your expectations. Of course, some people won’t respond in the same way. “It’s not everyone’s goal to get along with their coworkers,” Alpert adds. “If a colleague has a competitive outlook or is looking to outshine you, a healthy bond may not ever grow—and it’s important to be conscious of those situations so you can be realistic in your approach and response to interactions.”

Communicate. Being clear about your feelings is key to maintaining any relationship. If you sense a shift between you and a colleague, or find yourself disagreeing, talk to that person about it. Take a walk or go to lunch and share your thoughts. “Oftentimes we misconceive the tone of an email or body language during a meeting, and we take it personally,” Alpert notes. “That person’s behavior may have nothing to do with your relationship, but you have to ask them in order to find out. Communicating concerns makes understanding possible.”

Recognize when it’s time for a change. Though leaving a job is a difficult thought for most of us, it’s important to recognize when the workplace is an unhealthy environment. “If you are not getting back any of the positive energy you are bringing to your workplace, ask yourself: Can I really stay here?” Alpert says. It can be a hard transition, especially if you’ve been with a company for a number of years and have gotten into a routine, but you have to make choices that contribute to your overall wellbeing. “Remember that your experience of work, what it offers and what it asks of you, can shape all aspects of your life,” she adds.

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