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What is loneliness doing to the workforce?

Social isolation is proving to be one of the most crippling issues for workplace engagement and productivity.

We are facing a global loneliness epidemic that is hurting wellbeing and workplace performance, according to former US surgeon general Vivek Murthy. Few people are alone at work, in fact, often we are surrounded by people all day long, but that doesn’t prevent people from experiencing loneliness.

London-based Campaign to End Loneliness describes the condition as, “Lack or loss of companionship which happens when we have a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want”. UK mental health organisation Mind classifies it as both a symptom of a mental health issue as well as a contributing factor to mental health problems. It can be difficult to tell what came first, the chicken or the egg.

Brigham Young University in the US recently revealed some startling findings about the sociological impact of loneliness which shows that the condition is potentially more dangerous to health than obesity or smoking. Australian research generated similar results. A 2016 national survey showed that 60 per cent of respondents had a tendency to feel lonely, while 82.5 per cent thought loneliness was becoming a more prevalent issue.

The effects

Chronic loneliness has a negative impact on both physical and mental health. It can lead to depression, sleeplessness and even early onset dementia. Physically, loneliness can affect cardiovascular health by increasing blood pressure, cholesterol levels and heightens the risk of obesity.

Translated into a workplace context, loneliness leads to disengagement. Performance, productivity, attention levels and workplace relationships are all likely to take a hit.

Why are people suffering loneliness in the workplace?

There are several possible work-related contributors to loneliness. Chronic exhaustion and burnout and an unsupportive workplace culture are a few to note. Emma Seppala, science director at Stanford University, and Marissa King, professor of organisational behaviour at Yale say that work-related loneliness, “is not a result of social isolation, as you might think, but rather is due to the emotional exhaustion of workplace burnout”. The lack of a supportive workplace culture adds to the burnout problem, leading to isolation and loneliness.

The condition isn’t confined to those on the lowest rung at work, either. Tania de Jong, founder of Creativity Australia, an organisation that aims to reduce social isolation, loneliness and depression, says it’s often the case that people who have great jobs are just as lonely as those that are unemployed or less fortunate in life. Online communication replacing face-to-face conversations is another factor that has made the problem worse.

Creativity Australia runs With one Voice inclusion choirs, which bring together people from diverse backgrounds such as CEOs, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and retirees with migrants, job seekers and those suffering from depression and anxiety.

Singing has neuroscientific benefits, particularly in a group setting, says De Jong.

“Through our program we have seen countless examples of people finding jobs, work experience, developing mentor relationships, friendships and even marriages,” she says. With one Voice runs the program in public spaces, but also comes into organisations to help them develop a similar scheme.

Other top tips to reduce loneliness in the workplace

Employees are less likely to experience burnout and suffer in silence if they work in a socially supportive environment, say Seppala and King. So what does that look like?

  • It is an environment where employers are honest, respectful and value the contribution of employees. Inclusion and empathy are key to preventing burnout, exhaustion and subsequent loneliness.
  • Employees should be encouraged to develop inter-organisational networks. Onboarding partners, mentor programs and coaching are a few avenues that can create supportive workplace relationships.
  • Celebrate collective success to acknowledge collaborative efforts and achievements. This can help individuals feel that they belong and are appreciated.

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Tony Wiggins
Tony Wiggins

This is very true where organisations have older workers. Older workers are placed in the corner of the floor (out of sight, out of mind) or younger workers do not see the value in their ideas to improve productivity. Have a look around the office, what do you see?

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