Want to Live Longer? Coworkers to the Rescue!

I’ll go ahead and say it – coworkers are what make or break a job.

My assertion doesn’t just arise from countless appointments with students who have described their great/awful colleagues with much fondness/lament, though I have heard this enough times to make an argument on that basis alone.

No, good readers – I now have science on my side. The iron fist of cold, hard, correlational data has struck, and delivered both loudly and clearly an edict: coworkers matter. They matter a whole bunch. How much? Well, a recent longitudinal study on workplace mortality has provided some evidence pointing to the notion that our coworkers matter so much that they have a major influence on how long we live. This article from wired.com does a good job of summarizing the study in a digestible fashion. However, for the sake of this blog entry, let’s just leave it at the (predictable) conclusion that your social support system at work (or lack thereof) is of crucial importance to your overall health and well-being.

But this is a blog, not a scientific journal article, so I would be remiss not to include some personal examples to bring the subject matter to life. Have you ever asked yourself, what’s the worst relationship with coworkers that I’ve ever had? How about the best one? I’d like to share my responses to the above questions here, and feel free to do so yourself in the comments (keeping your examples anonymous, of course. We don’t want to burn any bridges).

The “worst” relationship with coworkers I’ve ever had:

I use the word “worst” for brevity – it would be more accurate, though less eloquent, to say “the least good.” Nonetheless, this one’s pretty easy for me. I was “the new kid” in a crew of four people in one of my summer jobs during my undergraduate degree. While it was my first season on the job, the other crew members were veterans – one of them had been doing the work for longer than I’d been alive. Things started out amicably enough – they were all really nice and well-meaning people in their own way, but it became clear before long that some of them had certain standards that they just didn’t expect me to live up to. My inevitable mistakes on the job started to become proof to them of my ineptitude, rather than opportunities to mentor or teach me to become better.

Instead of an open, encouraging environment, I found myself in a sort of relationship where my shortcomings were highlighted at every opportunity, and successes were only briefly acknowledged before moving on. The work was hard, and mistakes could be costly, there’s no doubt about that. So, I can understand why things were that way. There was to be no coddling, no acceptance of anything less than my full effort. It was tough love for a tough job.

By the end of those four months, I was mentally drained. It takes an incredible toll to be around people all day, every day, who don’t support you. I couldn’t imagine doing that all year, though it may have gotten better, who knows. Although I learned more in that summer than in the following two seasons combined, I enjoyed the other seasons a whole lot more – mostly because I was working with people who I really got along with.

The “best” relationship with coworkers I’ve ever had:

Defining “best” here is probably a very subjective process, as a great relationship with coworkers is likely to mean far different things to different people. I’ve been very fortunate to experience a colourful variety of great coworker relationships, ranging from straight-up friendships to more professionally supportive relationships. One of the adjustments that a lot of people have trouble with once they finish with school is that of finding new friends – in the absence of school (and the slow disintegration of many school friendships), the primary vehicle for new friendships and acquaintances often becomes work.

As hard as it might be to take me seriously when I say this, I’d have to say that the overall best coworker situation I’ve been in is at my current job. While it is true that I don’t want to get fired, it’s also true that my work environment right now is pretty great. I have understanding and encouraging supervision, supportive colleagues with similar values and desires to help students, and a feeling that we are all working towards something that is greater than the sum of its parts. I’ve had some adjusting to do in this job (as in any job), and the process here was like night and day compared to the example I used above. There’s been more than one instance where I’ve had to reach out for help, and the response is always great (it still happens, from time to time!).

So, I can be pretty sure that my current coworkers are extending my life span.

Are yours?

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