We hear a lot about how much our increased use of technology and social media can cut us off from interacting face to face, and the impact this can have on our relationships with others. It happens in the workplace as well. An article this month* in the financial press about how data on us is collected includes reference to a detailed analysis of workplace behaviour in Rhode Island a few years ago. This studied the impact of isolating call-centre employees in cubicles; an arrangement intended to maximise their productivity. Employees also had to take their breaks in rotation so that the phones were manned all the time. In other words, they didn’t have much opportunity to interact. The company decided to try breaking up this arrangement so that staff were free to share ideas with each other. Again, the objective was to increase productivity. It was immediately and dramatically successful.
But restoring the ‘human’ factor to the workplace also has more meaningful benefits. Experiencing this helps us appreciate the importance of being connected to others and our environment. We have a fundamental need to feel part of what is going on outside ourselves.
A recent review** of three books published since last October on the subject of social connections starts with the words ‘Human beings are born social’, and reflects on how our brains respond physically to social interaction. This in itself is not new information. Here are two examples of the more accessible literature on this subject: ‘Why love matters’ by Sue Gerhardt, published in 2004 is considered important reading for those in caring roles. It carries the subtitle ‘how affection shapes a baby’s brain’. In April 2008, the children’s charity Kids Company published a study of how the quality of early emotional nurturing affected the physical development of children’s brains. The results were conclusive.
But sometimes connecting with others can feel like the last thing we need. When we feel we are experiencing problems in living, the effort required to engage with the outside world can seem enormous, or a waste of time. It may even feel irrelevant to us and that there is no point in trying. Feeling connected may seem like an alien concept where important early-life attachments have been absent, inadequate or abusive, or where later-life trauma has resulted in a loss of trust in relationships with others.
The way we respond in order to cope with this situation can appear harmful to ourselves (and possibly to others). This can take the form of addictions, such as substance abuse or self-harming, or anxieties that make us withdraw and feel in some way different to others. Such strategies might help us survive, but our deeper feelings tell us something isn’t right, because we have a basic need to feel connected. And because living in relationship with others and our environment is part of what it means to be human.
*’How we analyse our lives’, Gillian Tett, Financial Times 18 January 2014
**’Alone together’, Julian Baggini, Financial Times 4 January 2014