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How Close Are You To Your Workmates?

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When I hear the word ‘relationships’ I most often think of those in life we are closest to; family, friends and romantic partners.  However in this article, I want to reflect on a kind of relationship that we don’t often hear too much about – and that’s the relationships we form with the people we work with in paid (or voluntary) employment.

Work relationships can be multi-faceted and complex.  We can form close bonds and friendships, spending time with colleagues outside of work hours and becoming quite close in our personal lives.  If we’re lucky, I think, we can find that our work and personal lives blur especially in a job we enjoy with people we like, going to work can feel like a pleasure rather than a chore and meetings can be a bit like a social occasion.

Or, we can be in the polar opposite situation. We might find we don’t really share the same values or interests as our workmates, and so keep our relationships simply professional.  Or worse, we can actively dislike someone we have to work with, and have to navigate this tricky dynamic day-in and day-out.  This can be incredibly difficult and stressful, particularly when you have to work closely on the same projects, or with the same clients.

When I add it up, I’ve worked in 20 or so different employment roles over the past 15 years, including full-time, part-time, contracting and volunteer roles.  This number is high partly because of all the part-time jobs I’ve had over the 10 years I studied at university, partly because I’m an independent contractor at times, and partly because in truth, I love variety in my work and having a number of projects on the go at any one time.

Having a lot of different jobs has meant that I’ve had to form working relationships with quite a large number of people.  Some have been wonderfully close and supportive people who I still maintain contact with now one of which has even become my partner of seven years.  Others sadly have been incredibly unpleasant, passive-aggressive, dysfunctional relationships that have caused a great deal of stress and sorrow.  Luckily, I can say with honesty that I don’t have any of those types of relationships in any of my current roles – although many people unfortunately do.

So what have I learned, through managing all of these different work relationships?  If anything, I think it would be that in any relationship, be it work or otherwise, the only person whose behaviour I realistically have any power to change is my own.  While I completely believe in healthy conversations and working things out wherever possible, I’ve had to accept at times that for whatever reason, I simply do not get along with a particular person.  In these cases I’ve learned that the best I can do is moderate my own behaviour and not let another person affect my personal and professional integrity.

Also, I think it’s important not to sweat the small stuff too much at work.  You can’t expect to get along with everyone, and even when you do, everyone has a bad day sometimes.  When you do have that question mark, it’s also okay to ask, “Hey, what’s up?  I might be totally wrong, but did I do something to annoy you?” Or, “Are you okay?  You seem not quite yourself today?”  If someone chooses to say, “I’m fine!” when obviously they are not, then at least you’ve done what you can to resolve any potential issue.

These small things might seem relatively obvious and straightforward, but I’ve found that simple does work.  Our work colleagues are often the people we spend the most time with, and how functional or healthy these relationships are can have a huge effect on our general stress levels and overall wellbeing.  For that reason alone I think it’s important to cultivate healthy relationships in the workplace as much as possible and, where we can’t, maybe even ask ourselves if it might be time to move on.

Barbara has a Masters in Health Science and is a registered Counselling Psychologist with the New Zealand Psychologists Board. She is also a full member of the New Zealand Psychological Society and the Institute of Counselling Psychology. She currently works as therapist within a specialist public health service, supporting clients with both mental health and substance use concerns. She is also the part time content manager for DPSN, where she blogs regularly about issues of diversity across all areas of society, but particularly in relation to mental health and addictions

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