Did you know that there is an epidemic of loneliness at work? I didn’t, until I read an HBR article this week on “Work and the Loneliness Epidemic” by Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy the former Surgeon General of the United States. Frankly I was shocked. As a solopreneur, working from a home office, I do experience loneliness from time to time. But as a perennial optimist, it’s nothing that a trip to Starbucks, a call with a friend or some cranked up loud Earth Wind and Fire music doesn’t fix. However, as I read the article, I removed the blinkers.
Vice Admiral Murthy makes the following points:
Loneliness is a lack of, or weak human connection.
It is a growing health epidemic with over 40% Americans reporting feeling lonely, and over 50% CEOs reporting loneliness in their roles.
Loneliness is a public health issue and is often present with clinical illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes.
Stress is an indicator of loneliness with serious implications in the workplace for performance, productivity, creativity and decision making
Causes of the increase in loneliness are:
Geographical dispersion – people are physically dispersed, increasingly mobile and therefore separated from their work community;
New models of working such as the “gig” economy, projects, subcontracting mean that people come together for short periods of time and then disperse;
Technology – even when we are physically together, we focus on screens rather than on each other.
I certainly meet many people in my client assignments and generally in day to day interactions who are disengaged, unhappy and merely existing. Add to this the perceived division of work from life i.e. work vs. life and the admonition to “leave your problems at home” and we end up with workplaces that are solitary and alien to the human condition. It saddens me, the lack of joy, of smiles, of laughter at work. I had labelled it “toxicity” but I see that at its root is the lack of connection, which is one of the most basic human needs. The haunting refrain from the Beatles song, Eleanor Rigby, popped into my mind as I read the article:
“All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?”
These lonely people are in our workplaces, for a significant portion of their lives, and it’s up to us to make them feel they belong. Why is that important? Because, as Vice Admiral Murthy points out: “researchers for Gallup found that having strong social connections at work makes employees more likely to be engaged with their jobs and produce higher-quality work, and less likely to fall sick or be injured.”
He proposes some solutions, to which I add my comments from my own experience:
Evaluate the current state of connections in your workplace: Basically, find out if the people in your organisation are driven by fear or love – the former will indicate loneliness and that latter, connection. I believe this could be done with a simple survey to at least get an initial picture of how people are feeling. But you can also sense it if you are observant – what do people look like? Do they look stressed or happy to come to work? What’s the “vibe” in your workplace? What’s the energy like?
Build understanding of high-quality relationships. Be very explicit about the type of relationships you want – don’t leave it to chance! In the work I do in culture, I spend time with my clients helping them define the type of relationships they desire at work, and then figuring out how to communicate and coach their team leaders and members to build these relationships.
Make strengthening social connections a strategic priority in your organization. Leadership must model the desired behaviours of building connections. I sometimes hear “But Marguerite, when will I do my work?” Leader – building connections amongst the people in your organization IS your work!
Encourage co-workers to reach out and help others – and accept help when it is offered. This might be the toughest one for leaders – accepting help. But it is your willingness to be vulnerable, and gracious that will send a clear message to team members that helping others is valued.
Create opportunities to learn about your colleagues’ personal lives. In the last 6 months, I have coached a client in building relationships with his direct reports. His fortnightly task was to take 2 of his reports out to lunch and just have relaxed, informal conversations to get to know them as people. At first, he was reticent, and indeed even resistant. But once he did it, he reported how good HE felt and what a difference it was making to his interactions and the dynamics of his team.
Heeding the advice of Diana Ross, we can each do something to stem the epidemic of loneliness at work, and create an environment where people feel connected and happy:
“Reach out and touch
Make this world a better place
If you can”