Did you know loneliness can be as devastating to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day? I didn’t! Recently, however, a headline caught my team’s attention: Great Britain has appointed a “Minister for Loneliness.” What does that even mean? Reading this New York Times article, we soon found out. And it began to dawn on us just how damaging loneliness can be.
The British government appointed their Minister for Loneliness to reconnect people who suffer from social disconnection. This isn’t just the elderly. Researchers have discovered that adolescence and young adulthood are life periods of peak loneliness. Think of the student who hunkers down in her room rather than going out with friends. Or that millennial you just hired.
Because, as it turns out, workplace loneliness is something we should all be concerned about.
In meta-analyses of 70 studies involving over 3.4 million individuals, BYU researchers discovered that loneliness is a growing public health threat. Feeling socially isolated is potentially more dangerous to our cardio-vascular, immune, and cognitive health than light smoking, hypertension, and obesity. (Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB. Heart 2016)
However, it’s not just about social interaction. Working with a lot of people doesn’t guarantee we won’t be lonely. Some of us can be socially isolated without feeling lonely. Others may be surrounded by people and still feel lonely. According to psychologist-researcher Dr. Holt-Lunstad, loneliness is more about “the subjective perception of isolation — the discrepancy between one’s desired and actual level of social connection.”
It’s quality over quantity: We feel lonely when our relationships are not emotionally rewarding.
But why should we care about loneliness in the workplace?
Well, first of all, because we want to be empathetic human beings. But beyond that, there are also solid business reasons for addressing social isolation at work. Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy lays out some compelling points in a recent HBR article, “Work and the Loneliness Epidemic.”
It turns out that lonely workers don’t perform as well as those who feel connected — to their work, their team, and their organization. Decision-making and problem-solving suffer. Lonely workers are creative less often. And they’re absent more often.
The bottom line is that employees who meaningfully connect at work benefit your bottom line.
So how can you strategically combat loneliness at work? Here are six tips that work for both virtual and brick-and-mortar teams:
- Treat everyone equally, but not necessarily the same. Some team members may need multiple points of meaningful contact during a day or week. Learn what your individual team members require to feel engaged. Reach out according to their needs. This could mean a daily (or more) chat, in person or by phone/video call, with one team member, while another is fine connecting by email or IM.
- Encourage your team to interact on a more personal level. Take time during daily huddles and weekly team meetings to touch base on what’s important to one another. Everyone wants to feel understood and valued as a person. When we aren’t, we feel…well, lonely.
- Model high-quality relationships to inspire the same in others. As Murthy points out, this requires “shared experiences and mutually beneficial two-way relationships.” Hold up your end of the bargain in your relationships. Foster compassion and generosity of spirit.
- Encourage mentorship and collaboration. When we help others, we help ourselves. Reach out to your team with genuine offers of assistance, and be sure to follow through. Galvanize your teammates to assist one another, and to accept help when it’s offered. People want to feel useful.
- Train your team on the benefits and shortcomings of digital interaction. Reiterate the communication pitfalls of email, texts, and IMs. Discover how to interact more meaningfully in ways that work with your particular team. This could mean scheduling more face-time. Or sponsoring get-togethers between individual teammates. Consider using video or voice interaction more often, if distance is a factor.
- Take time to have fun together. Yes, we talk about this a lot at EPI, but we really mean it! For us, as a virtual team, this can mean something as simple as a string of silly emails to break up an intense workday. Laughter connects.
Become your team’s “minister for loneliness” and you’ll all reap the benefits.
“It is about belonging, and belonging is about taking part, and taking part is about being of use, of being engaged. Loneliness is not about being useless but being unused.” (Stewart Dakers)
Michelle Kelly, CEO (Chief Enjoyment Officer)