May is Mental Health Awareness month and the theme for 2022 is loneliness. It seems no coincidence that The Thrive Lab’s recent survey into wellbeing at work highlighted isolation, loneliness and a lack of connection as the main problem impacting people’s wellbeing at work today.
And we are not alone in our findings. In a recent UK study, the Loneliness Experiment, it was found that 40% of people aged 15 to 24 were experiencing loneliness. In a separate study by Cigna, it was found that nearly half of all Americans report feeling lonely or isolated at least some of the time. Loneliness has been described as an ‘epidemic of our time’ and it is something that we need to take seriously.
In this blog post we will be exploring a bit more about what loneliness is, why it is important to reduce loneliness at work and how that can be achieved in todays world of hybrid and remote working.
What is Loneliness?
Loneliness is a complex emotion that is thought to be influenced by a number of factors such as; personality, social skills, upbringing, culture, health and life events.
Loneliness is defined as a negative feeling experienced when an individual perceives a discrepancy between the social relationships they have and those that they want. It is a subjective experience based on how we feel and so it can hold a different meaning for everyone. At the root of loneliness though is a feeling that you have no meaningful connections with another, that people just don’t get you, or that your interactions with others are superficial and unsatisfying.
It is important to note that loneliness is not the same as being alone. We can feel lonely even when we are with other people if we feel like we don’t belong or fit in. Likewise, we can be alone but not feel lonely if we enjoy our own company and feel content and at ease with having time on our own.
In short loneliness is a feeling based on the perception of ourselves and others around us, it is individual to every one of us and can be hard to spot in others as well as ourselves.
The negative impact of Loneliness
Loneliness doesn’t just make us feel bad, it can also have a significant impact on our physical health.
Studies have shown that loneliness is linked to a host of health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and even dementia. In one study loneliness was found to be as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In another study of older adults, those who were lonely were twice as likely to die over a six-year period than those who were not lonely. Loneliness also contributes to so called deaths of despair such as deaths caused by suicide or drug and alcohol misuse.
So it seems it is in all our interests to take loneliness seriously and find ways to help reduce the ‘loneliness epidemic’. Not only does it make sense for business to mitigate the impact of loneliness in the workplace as happy and healthy employees are more engaged, motivated and productive. But, from an altruistic and empathetic perspective it is important we do all we can to help avoid the negative outcomes associated with poor mental and physical health, and even premature death. Ultimately, it is up to each individual to make the effort to connect with others, but businesses can play a role in creating an environment that is conducive to forming social relationships.
So how can we reduce loneliness in the workplace?
So as we can see, loneliness is a complex emotion that can have a significant impact on our physical and mental health and our ability to do our job well. It is therefore important to reduce loneliness in the workplace. There are a number of things that businesses and employees can do to reduce loneliness in the workplace, including:
Find ways to strengthen relationships at work
Teams that play together, stay together as the saying goes. Organise a challenge that brings people together, take time to celebrate each other’s achievements and milestones, start a book club or sports team or organise a regular coffee and chat over zoom if you work virtually. Scheduling in back to back meetings without the time to truly connect with others may seem productive but without building relationships this will hurt your business in the long run.
Practice mindful listening
We’ve all been there, someone is talking to us but we’re not really listening, our mind is elsewhere. Maybe we are thinking about what we’re going to say next or maybe we just don’t care. Either way, this creates a barrier to connection and deepens feelings of loneliness. The next time someone is talking to you, make a conscious effort to really listen, pay attention to what they are saying and try to understand their point of view. This will help build trust, respect, and connection.
Inclusivity is about valuing everyone’s opinions and ideas, regardless of their position within the organisation. When people feel valued, they are more likely to feel a sense of belonging and connectedness which in turn reduces loneliness. Creating an inclusive environment can be as simple as ensuring that everyone’s voices are heard during meetings, that decision making is democratic, and that everyone feels like they have a role to play in their team and the organisation. Feeling heard is an important part of this and yet in meetings it is often 20% of the people do the talking 80% of the time. By restructuring meetings and agendas to ensure everyone gets a chance to speak, feel heard and valued you can create more connection and more ideas for your business!
Create a sense of shared purpose
When employees feel like they are a part of something larger than themselves, they naturally work better together. A sense of shared purpose gives employees a reason to connect with one another and rally behind the company’s goals. When everyone is working towards the same goal, it creates a positive and productive environment. Help your teams identify the strengths in themselves and each other and how these contribute to the bigger picture of what your team is trying to achieve for the organisation and what it stands for. Connecting individual values to company values and the impact this has on the wider world can help forge a sense of connection, meaning and worth.
Get better at communicating
Sometimes we can become so wrapped up in our to do list that it can be hard to look up and notice what is going on around us. Taking notice of what and who is around us, engaging in conversation, smiling at another person, making time to check in with how people are doing could be the thing that makes someone else’s day just that little but better.
Of course, this is hard when working virtually so it is even more important to take time in team meetings online to check in with each other in a personal way. A 5 minute break out room with a question like “What is going well for you this week” or using picture coaching cards where everyone chooses an image to represent their day or week can help boost relationships and a feeling of connection in the online world.
Even better is if we can build more empathy and compassion into our conversations as this helps others feel safe, secure and able to open up if need be thereby feeling a deeper sense of connection that will help to combat loneliness. Consider whether you or your teams need help to develop new ways of communicating that will help you create a deeper sense of connection and understanding.
We recently worked with a team where the leader felt he communicated well as he had implemented communication strategies to ensure everyone was kept updated with what was happening. His communication style was around action and getting things done but it was clear his team were missing connection and being with each other. The impact of this was a team who didn’t feel connected, supported or motivated to work as effectively as their leader wanted, causing friction and misunderstandings.
Our recent workplace wellbeing report also highlighted that although methods and frequency of communication had increased during the pandemic only 22% of people felt that this was more effective. Taking time to review how well your communication skills are working for you and your teams could help reduce loneliness and boost engagement.
Support employees who are struggling
It can take a lot to admit you are feeling lonely and for some people it may not even be something they are aware is having a negative impact on their wellbeing. People may not want to bring it up as they feel it reflects badly on them as a person or they feel that there is something wrong with them for feeling like this. It may be that loneliness is seen as something else such as stress, a fixed mindset or being “difficult” to work with. However it may show up, it is important to offer support.
Having mental health first aiders, wellbeing champions and a fancy employee assistance programme can all help, but we believe there is much that can be done before this to help prevent problems occurring in the first instance. Our coaching programme for teams is called Connect, Pause and Reset because we recognise the power of connection in building great teams. Our coaching days also offer a way for employees to gain support with an issue before it turns into something bigger.
Do you think loneliness is a problem in your workplace? What do you think could be done to reduce loneliness in the workplace? Let us know in the comments below.
We’d love to hear from you!