Loneliness is being touted as the next big public health epidemic. But why is this a workplace issue?
At best, loneliness is an unpleasant feeling someone experiences now and then. At worst, persistent loneliness can pose health risks as harmful as obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It can even lead to early death.
This was the confronting picture recently presented in Melbourne by loneliness expert Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University in Utah.
Speaking at a Swinburne University event, Holt-Lunstad said the findings were the result of two detailed meta-analyses. One involved 70 studies that represented more than 3.4 million individuals (primarily from North America but also from Europe, Asia and Australia), while the other drew from 148 studies representing more than 300,000 people.
It’s lonely at the top…and bottom
The fact is having strong social bonds in the workplace makes employees engaged and produce work that is elevated above the ordinary, say Gallup researchers. They are also less likely to fall ill or get injured. Connections also indirectly affect self-esteem and make people more resilient during times of stress.
The oft-heard phrase “it’s lonely at the top” is actually a truism. Half of CEOs in the US experience loneliness, according to a Snapshot Survey, with new CEOs particularly vulnerable, caught in a vicious cycle of feeling that their isolation negatively affects their performance. But opening up about those emotions isn’t always an option, particularly if you are meant to be in charge.
A 2011 study of 672 workers from California State University and Wharton School of Business showed that admitting to being lonely only made things worse because the knowledge of another person’s unhappiness “provided stronger and more negative cues for the co-workers about the overall quality of their relationship with the employee”. Which makes them even lonelier.
You may well be thinking, hasn’t this always been the case? Won’t there always be some employees who find it harder to mix than others? Think again, as new models of working are likely to exacerbate workplace loneliness in the future.
Writing in Harvard Business Review recently, Vivek H Murthy, who served as surgeon general of the US, said: “In the workplace, telecommuting and some on-demand ‘gig economy’ contracting arrangements have created flexibility, but often reduced the opportunities for in-person interaction and relationships.” And even office or factory work doesn’t guarantee meaningful connections, he says. People can be surrounded by co-workers, even in open-plan spaces, but everyone is staring at a computer or attending to tasks where opportunities to connect are scarce.
The problem has begun to enter the radar of governments. In the UK, for example, sports minister Tracey Crouch is taking on a new role in addition to her existing job, that of minister for loneliness. It’s a move that comes amid figures showing more than one in 10 Britons are lonely. Holt-Lunstad is her scientific adviser.
How can organisations help?
With so many of us spending long hours at work, “there needs to be a culture and allowance for people to connect as human beings. We shouldn’t need bonding or team leadership days to actually connect with our colleagues and make meaningful relationships,” says Dr Michelle Lim, a loneliness researcher and senior lecturer in clinical psychology at Swinburne University.
Lim, who is also on the scientific advisory team for the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness, says smalltalk – from chatting about TV shows around the water cooler, to stopping by someone’s desk to ask about their weekend – should be encouraged.
“It’s a gateway for bigger interactions. A smile or nod during smalltalk is something to build on,” says Lim. “These connections can help colleagues gain trust and work together more productively.”
The California/Wharton study recommends employers treat loneliness as an organisational rather than a personal issue. It found that lonely workers withdraw emotionally from their organisation and commitment to outcomes. Lonely workers aren’t always easy to spot.
Lim says they might fit in well with a team and have social skills. Yet while they may feel included, they won’t feel like they belong. When addressing loneliness, employers should avoid using the term “lonely” because it is emotive, says Lim.
“I always flip it on the positive side and talk about positive relationships and positive connections.”
Alone or lonely?
There’s a difference between the lonely worker and those, including introverts, who enjoy working alone, says Tania de Jong AM, singer, social entrepreneur and founder of Creativity Australia, which runs programs to help workers reconnect with each other.
De Jong says an introverted worker will seek out moments of solitude to recharge, whereas a lonely person doesn’t choose their isolation.
“Loneliness is something that happens to a person. It could be that their one confidant in life is gone – a partner or parent dies, or their closest friend at work leaves the company.”
Workplaces have the potential to be a person’s “tribe” and a place of inclusion, says De Jong. Yet with redundancies looming across many industries, employees are less likely to take time to connect with colleagues in case they be seen as slacking off, she says.
De Jong notes that redundancy is a major trigger for loneliness and HR departments must equip outgoing employees with skills that maximise their chances of re-employment.
Other factors adding to workplace isolation include record low union membership, which once connected workers through a ‘common cause’, says Marcela Slepica, clinical services director at employee assistance program AccessEAP.
Then there are the technological advancements and flexible work arrangements – including working remotely, or from home or freelancing – which can be a double-edged sword as workers lose social contact. And with Australian and international research suggesting that between 40 and 60 per cent of current middle-class jobs won’t exist in 10 years’ time, the situation is only likely to get worse.
As a new generation enters the workforce – those who may be more comfortable connecting through their devices than in-person – are workplaces set to become even more isolating?
Lim says long-term tracking is needed to understand if digital connections provide as meaningful bonds as face-to-face interactions.
“Employers need to think of different ways of encouraging positive interactions with the millennial generation.”
Murthy says the onus is on institutions.
“Companies have the power to drive change, not only by strengthening connections among employees, partners and clients, but also by serving as an innovation hub that can inspire other organisations to address loneliness.”
This article first appeared in the June edition of HRM magazine.
Read AHRI’s submission to the Australian federal government senate Select Committee on the Future of Work and Workers here.