Today’s Urgent Need to Manage Emotional Health with Connection

October 14, 2020

by Michael Stallard

Tapping into the energizing and protective power of human connection is an urgent matter today—for you and for your organization.

Stress and loneliness were already high in the U.S. and the COVID-19 pandemic has made matters worse. Consider this:

  • Eight out of 10 Americans reported in Gallup Research a few years ago that they were afflicted by stress. Imagine what they would say today! Stress levels are high this year, fueled by health concerns, economic uncertainty, social unrest, the challenges of distance learning for students and their parents, the sudden pivot to remote work for office workers, the impact of natural disasters, and the divisive political climate.
  • Prior to 2020, research over a period of years had established that we are experiencing an epidemic of loneliness in the U.S. and other countries. A study conducted in 2019 by Cigna, the insurance company, found that 61 percent of American adults (that’s roughly three in five people) tested out as lonely.
  • Physical separation that’s required during the pandemic to reduce the transmission of the virus has increased social isolation.

This convergence of factors means people will be more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, addiction, and suicide ideation.

The best way to cope with these challenges to your emotional well-being is to intentionally boost connection in your personal life and in your work life.

What’s Going On Beneath the Surface

It’s fascinating what the human body is designed to do without your even being conscious of it. One of the reasons that positive social connection is so important and so powerful is that it engages the cortex in the brain, where you think rationally and make better decisions, and shifts brain activity from the amygdala, a region that controls the reactionary “fight or flight” system and is constantly on guard for threats. For this reason, I often tell people, “never worry alone.”

Stress, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, sometimes the stress of a looming deadline will motivate you to focus. What you need to be concerned about is the quantity and duration of the stress you are experiencing. During a state of stress response, the human body reallocates resources, including blood, glucose, and oxygen, to bodily systems that it expects to use for fight or flight, including the heart, lungs, and big muscles, while reducing those same resources to the digestive system, immune system, reproductive system, and parts of the brain. This is a very useful response in a time of immediate threat or danger when you need to react. But what if you are in an ongoing period of high stress and you get “stuck” in a state of stress response?

I know firsthand how the combination of stress and disconnection harms emotional and physical health. Earlier in my career there were seasons while working on Wall Street that the demands of my job as a managing director crowded out meaningful time with family and friends. One particular period stands out. I had been tasked with enacting change in an area that not everyone was on board with changing, including members of the team working with me on it. I was consumed with thinking about the issue, even when I was home with my wonderful family. I started not feeling well, which I didn’t know then is typical when you lack sufficient connection in your life. Inwardly, I was anxious and stressed. With responsibilities at work and to my family, I looked for ways to manage my emotions and energy. I drank more caffeine in the morning to get me going, exercised more midday to rev me up, and drank more alcohol at night to slow me back down. My health suffered. It would be years before I would recognize that, deep down, I had been lonely and that exacerbated the situation. Even though I was interacting with people throughout the day, I was disconnected and there was little depth in my relationships. Trying to push through on my own, under a lot of stress, was the wrong approach.

In subsequent years I would learn that connection calms your nervous system so you’ll feel better. Social connection appears to improve the performance of the body’s cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune systems. There are a host of other emotional and physical health benefits too.

The Benefits of Connection for Teams and Organizations

Eventually, I left Wall Street to heal and do research to better understand organizational culture and how it affects individual and organizational performance. Why had certain work cultures “fired me up” and energized me, and others had burned me out and drained me? What should I know as an individual about what it takes in order to thrive? As a leader, how can I create an environment that will engage those I am responsible for leading so that individually and collectively we can do our best work? I followed the clues where they led me, into the fields of psychology, sociology, neuroscience, history, and organizational behavior, among others. What I discovered is the “X factor” that brings out the best performance is human connection.

For teams and organizations, connection increases employee engagement, tightens strategic alignment so that everyone is moving together in the same direction, improves the quality of decisions, increases innovation, and improves agility and adaptability, qualities that are a necessity in this fast-paced, ever-changing age. These benefits add up to a powerful source of performance advantage and competitive advantage. Over the nearly 20 years since I left Wall Street, I have written two books on creating a culture of connection and co-founded the Connection Culture Group.  My colleagues and I share with leaders and organizations what we’ve learned about the vital role of connection, why cultures of control and cultures of indifference breed disconnection, and how certain attitudes, language, and behaviors infuse connection among individuals in a group. Creating and maintaining a connection culture in your organization will foster a collaborative and supportive environment that protects people from the stress, loneliness, and social isolation prevalent today.

Tap into the Power of Human Connection

Here’s the bottom line: As human beings, we are hardwired to connect. Absent sufficient connection we will dysfunction.

Disconnection is harmful to our emotional and physical health. Disconnection sabotages our individual performance. And if the way that people in your organization work together is disconnecting, that culture will sabotage the health and performance of the group too.

If you are running a connection deficit, you will not be at your best. Your relationships may suffer or not be what they could be. The same is true for your performance at work.

Tap into the power of human connection and I’m confident that you will discover greater productivity, prosperity, and joy that comes from having an abundance of connection in your life.


Michael Stallard is the globally-recognized thought leader on creating connection cultures to boost individual and organizational performance. He is a keynote speaker, workshop leader, cofounder and president of Connection Culture Group, and author of the bestselling books Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work, 2nd edition and Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Creativity, Passion and Productivity.