The case for strong relationships

Neuroscientists, including Matthew Lieberman in his 2013 book, Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, are uncovering increasing evidence to support the intuitive truth that human beings need strong relationships.  

Some social scientists, most notably, Robert Putnam in his influential book in 2000, Bowling Alone, detect a decline in so-called human capital, the social interactions that bind society together, in the USA and elsewhere over many decades.   There is no one indicator but, for example, in the 1950s, 60 per cent of Britons throughout that most people could be trusted, compared to 41 per cent in 2012-13.  

Chapter 5 of Civil Exchange's report, Whose Society?, draws together information from various  studies in the UK show that the most deprived communities score much less highly across some key indicators of human capital than more affluent communities.  People in the highest socio-economic groups and living in the most affluent areas are far more likely than those in the lowest to feel people in their neighbourhood can be trusted, to agree that people pull together, to want to be involved in local decision-making and feel they have influence.

At the same time, there is evidence of an epidemic of loneliness amongst older people.  Age Concern research has found, for example, that "Half a million people over the age of 60 usually spend each day alone, with no interaction with others, and nearly half a million more commonly do not see or speak to anyone for five or six days a week”.  An Action for Children survey of 2,000 parents in 2015 found that almost a quarter said they "always or often" felt lonely.

A 2011 literature review by Community Links, Deep Value, found that good relationships are particularly important for people facing complex difficulties and people place a high value on good relationships with public sector professionals.  Deep Value also found evidence that good relationships also lead to better outcomes:

"Where relationships are effective, evidence reveals that they contribute to achieving a range of valuable benefits: the failure to realise these benefits can be damaging.

  • The relationship between the advisor and the client in employment services has consistently been found to be a key element of a successful approach to helping people into employment.

  • Pupils who develop positive relationships with teachers go on to achieve better academic results.

  • People who access advice services funded by civil legal aid are more likely to reveal full information if the advisor builds a trusting and respectful relationship, thus leading to swifter resolution of cases, and clients who are more satisfied with the outcomes.

    •Patients who experience a good relationship with their healthcare professional are more likely to engage in positive behaviour change. "

Absence of good relationships was also found to staff burnout.  

These interactions are especially important in some areas involving complex human interactions and are less so where the service is relatively impersonal, for example, rubbish collection.  

Some other commentators also emphasise the importance of good relationships amongst those who deliver services, not just with those they serve, an insight which runs counter to the trend over many decades to reform public services through structural changes rather than investing in relationships, for example in the NHS.  The Southwark and Lambeth Early Action Commission in 2015 identified strong local collaborations based on trust as a way to foster early action and also pointed to the wider benefits of creating so-called "resourceful communities" as a way of strengthening social relationships – how people get together and interact across networks, neighbourhoods and groups.