Intimacy vs. Isolation: The importance of developing relationships in healthcare

Susanna Kahr

Back in the 20th century, Erik Erikson developed a psychosocial theory for human development which he split into 8 stages. The sixth stage, which he named ‘intimacy vs. isolation’ relates to the stage in our lives when we begin to form meaningful, loving relationships with others. One place where meaningful relationships are particularly important is within the healthcare industry. Yes, it can be a very rewarding industry to work in, but when patients die and the stress levels build, healthcare professionals really need strong, lasting relationships that they can rely on to get them through it. 

Intimacy vs. Isolation

Erikson believed that we learn to develop ‘intimate’ relationships between the ages of 19 and 40 – so during our working age. In his eyes, success during this phase means being able to form strong, intimate relationships, whilst those who struggle with this can experience isolation and loneliness. 

According to Erikson, intimacy doesn’t refer to sexual relationships, but rather to relationships in which each person can share parts of themselves with each other and develop deeply personal connections. So, to find out if you’re developing ‘intimate’ and close relationships with others or not, you should ask yourself if the relationships you have are like this. 

“What I like about this company is the intimacy we have with our patients.” – anonymous employer review at Rehabilitation & Recovery Rescue

You might feel isolation instead, especially if you feel that you avoid opening yourself up to others. It could be that you’re afraid of rejection, or you’re scared of being vulnerable. But regardless of why you isolate yourself, isolation often leads to loneliness, social isolation and in the worst cases can turn into a self-perpetuating cycle which can really affect your mental health. If you find yourself feeling really isolated, you should seek the advice of a therapist. 

Why relationships are important in healthcare

Humans have an innate desire to be close to one another. Close relationships are important for all of us, but especially for those working in the healthcare industry, in a high-stress healthcare job like nursing, you rely on your colleagues to be there when you need them both in surgery, on the wards and when you need emotional support. Here are some other reasons why close, intimate relationships are important for you. 

Less Stress

Research has shown that having close relationships is linked to less production of cortisol –  the stress hormone. So, the more close relationships you have, especially at work the less stress you will feel. Of course, close relationships also give you an outlet for feelings of stress or sadness, so this helps to lower your stress levels too. Here are some other ways to deal with stress in healthcare

“It is easy and not too busy that you have moments at work to breathe. I enjoy helping people.” – anonymous employer review at Miracle Ear

Greater sense of purpose

Having close, intimate relationships can help you to feel like you belong and are part of something bigger. This is really important in healthcare, especially if you’re working in a role which saves or makes people’s lives better. Feeling like you are part of a bigger effort will make you feel more excited and committed to your job every day. 

Better teamwork

If you have close relationships with your team members then you will trust them more and vice versa. This is especially important in stressful situations, if you feel that you can rely on each other then you will work better as a team and you will be able to do your job better. 

“Healthy coworker interaction leads to healthy work-life balance and activities outside of work.” – anonymous employer review at Catholic Health Initiatives

How to work on developing intimacy

The first way to choose intimacy over isolation is to learn to be open and to share with others. These are some ways to help you to develop stronger relationships:

  • Share part of yourself with others. 
  • Work on building a strong sense of self-identity – i.e. work out what you like, what your hobbies are, what makes you happy, take yourself out on dates and work on your relationship with yourself.
  • Let others in and foster a sense of emotional intimacy and closeness with your friends and colleagues.
  • Make commitments to your friends and colleagues. Part of being able to form strong relationships involves being able to commit to others for the long-term.
  • Show that you care about those around you and their needs. Relationships are a two-way street. Getting love is important, but so is giving it.



Do you have close relationships with your team? Tell us about your company culture and other factors that help you to build and maintain strong relationships with your managers and team members at your company. Equally, if your workplace is hostile or your team members are difficult to get close to, we want to know that too. Every review helps us to make the world of work more transparent. 


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