Loneliness is on the rise, according to a recent Cigna survey of more than 6,000 workers. Although it increased for members of every generation over the past year, loneliness remains most prevalent among millennials and Generation-Z, of whom nearly half report feeling lonely.
While loneliness has life changing impacts on the individuals who experience it, it can also have serious consequences for the businesses at which they are employed. Lonely workers take twice as many sick days and demonstrate less commitment and weaker performance. Their emotions can spread to others, as well, causing a ripple effect throughout an organization.
“Given the pernicious effects of loneliness… and given the amount of time people spend at work, leaders must address the issue,” Sigal Barsade, a professor at The Wharton School, told the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM). “This is not only, of course, because it’s an alienating and upsetting experience for the employee, but also because it’s an organizational problem.” Here are three ways leaders can combat employee loneliness and create a culture that makes everyone feel welcomed and integrated.
Encourage Real-Life Connections
Many of today’s leaders are so eager to adopt the latest software and tools that they overlook an element that nearly all technology is missing: face-to-face interaction. The Cigna study highlights why this is an issue, stating that the “frequency of one’s in-person interactions is a key indicator on how lonely they are.” Respondents who interacted with others daily, for instance, had an average loneliness score that was nearly 20 points lower than those who never did.
Further reinforcing these findings was a Future Workplace study of more than 2,000 managers and employees across 10 countries. It revealed that “almost half of an employee’s day is spent using technology to communicate” and that “slightly more than half feel lonely always or very often as a result.” In response to the study, Dan Schawbel, author of Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation, said: “Technology has created the illusion that workers are connected, when in reality they feel isolated, lonely, disengaged and less committed to their organizations when overusing or misusing it… Today’s leaders need to use technology as a bridge to connection so that they can foster strong work cultures, where employee’s human needs are met and supported.”
The best way to do that, according to Schawbel, is through “team building activities, social events and workations where workers can get to know each other on a personal level.” After hosting such offsite events, Schawbel said feelings of loneliness and isolation decrease, and levels of productivity and engagement increase. “[H]aving those [personal] connections is one of the strongest predictors of employee satisfaction, retention, performance and success,” said Rajiv Kumar, a medical doctor and president of Virgin Pulse Institute. “This study underscores the need for us to help our employees by fostering human interaction, communication and strong relationships that extend past the workplace.”
Create a Loneliness-Resistant Culture
As with any type of employee engagement metric, corporate culture plays an integral role in employee loneliness. In a study described in the Harvard Business Review, Barsade and her colleague Hakan Ozcelik found that a culture of “companionate love,” including expressions of affection, caring, compassion and tenderness among employees, “weakens the negative relationship between workplace loneliness and affective commitment to the organization.” A culture of anger, on the other hand, strengthens it.
Leaders should, therefore, encourage a culture of companionship — which, in turn, will help to foster cooperation over competition. As Jennifer Moss, author of Unlocking Happiness at Work, explained, an overabundance of the latter can cause stress, secrecy and defensiveness. “Too much competitiveness can also lead to feelings of isolation among co-workers and an ‘every person for themselves’ culture,” she wrote. “[T]he best way to encourage healthy competition and mitigate feelings of loneliness among workers is to focus on shared goals.”
For a powerful example of a loneliness-resistant culture, leaders can look to HubSpot, a marketing software company. While it hosts an array of relationship-building events — such as book clubs, automated introductions and breakfasts for new parents — one could argue its most impactful move has been reducing stigmas around mental health, with some leaders openly discussing their personal challenges. “[O]ne of the most important things we do to help our employees feel like they belong is to normalize moments of vulnerability,” Katie Burke, chief people officer, told SHRM. “Whether you’re nervous because it’s your first day, anxious because of a big presentation or lonely because it’s your first day back as a new parent, one of the most important things we can do is to help people realize they’re not alone.”
Design With Intent
With loneliness on the rise, leaders should design their workplace practices — and even physical spaces — with its mitigation in mind. Besides millennials and Gen Zers, who may be more reticent to initiate the face-to-face interactions they desperately need, two populations that deserve additional leadership attention are remote workers and new hires. According to Cigna, both of these groups are more likely to feel alone and lack companionship.
To reduce loneliness among remote workers, Schawbel suggested letting them lead virtual meetings, utilizing video conferencing software and having them work on site regularly. (A Gallup poll, in fact, found that remote employees who work at the office once per week are the happiest.) To reduce loneliness for new hires, leaders should introduce interventions as early as the onboarding process. Christina Zurek, a researcher at ITA Group, suggested “team lunches, snacks near the new person’s desk or assigning a ‘work buddy’ to show the ropes.” “These early opportunities for social engagement,” she wrote, “help new hires make connections sooner.”
As for workplace design, that matters, too — but open offices are not the answer. One study found employees spent four fewer hours per day interacting with their colleagues when they transitioned to open offices, as they replaced that vital face time with 56% more emails and 67% more instant messages. “[O]pen office plans don’t actually increase collaboration or decrease loneliness,” Susan Cain, author of Quiet, told SHRM. “On the contrary, they create giant rooms full of worker bees wearing headphones.” As I wrote about previously, tomorrow’s offices will feature a diversity of spaces, hopefully helping to alleviate this issue.
While the future of work will bring immense changes to the way we do business, it will not bring immense changes to what humans naturally need — among which connection reigns supreme. Thus, if leaders want their people and their companies to succeed, they will view loneliness as well worth addressing. “[L]oneliness is not simply the lonely employee’s problem; it influences colleagues as well as performance outcomes,” Barsade and Hakan wrote. “Organizations need to take tackling the problem of loneliness seriously for both their employees’ sake as well as the sake of the organization itself.”
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