Eight ways to beat loneliness in the workplace
Preventing people from feeling isolated
Lara sits at her desk, watching the office fill up. Groups of people chat excitedly about their weekends and exchange news over coffee as they settle down to work.
Suddenly, she feels that familiar pain rising in her chest. She'd love to be a part of these conversations, but she just doesn't feel able to approach the group. She's not part of the "in crowd."
As the day goes on, Lara works diligently and tries to ignore the growing feeling of isolation. But she knows that she's not working to her best. By the end of the day, she feels unhappy, anxious and stressed. She doesn't know what to do. Keep quiet and hope that things get better? Ask HR for advice? Or, perhaps just "call it quits" and find another job somewhere else?
In this article we explain what loneliness is, and how to recognise it. Then, we explore eight steps you can follow to help people to overcome it.
What causes loneliness?
Loneliness is a painful emotion that occurs when a person perceives that he or she is alone, or is being shunned by and isolated from other people. It can arise from working in a virtual or geographically dispersed team, or from being in a team of one .
But you don't have to be alone to feel lonely. People can feel lonely even when they work in busy offices or in bustling marketplaces. It's a feeling that can affect anyone, regardless of their role or their seniority.
Personal issues, such as bereavement or financial worry, can induce it. As can workplace conditions, like disruptive shift patterns, difficult team dynamics, and a lack of autonomy.
Technology has a role, too. The rise of telecommuting, for example, has increasingly led people to feel "out of sight, out of mind," despite the parallel growth of social media.
Why does loneliness at work matter?
Although loneliness might seem like a personal or trivial issue, to many people it's anything but. A 2010 study reported that more than 40 percent of adult Americans feel lonely. Some commentators suggest that we are experiencing a loneliness epidemic that could pose serious health risks.
Research undertaken in 2015 shows that loneliness can be worse for your brain and your body, over time, than alcohol and smoking. But when loneliness strikes at work, it becomes as much a business issue as a health issue. It affects not just how you feel, but how you perform.
Loneliness often results in an emotional withdrawal from the organisation. Lonely people tend to be less committed, creative, collaborative and attentive, and both the quality and quantity of their work can deteriorate. It has also been identified as a factor in workplace burnout.
How to recognise loneliness
Loneliness is a subjective experience, so there are no "hard and fast" rules about what it looks like. Many people may also hide their feelings for fear of embarrassment, or because they don't want to appear weak, and this can make loneliness difficult to identify.
As a manager, your best approach is to take the time to get to know and really understand your people. This will help you to recognise when someone is feeling disconnected or left out by the rest of team. Watch for changes in his behavior and body language, too. If he starts looking "down," avoids interaction, or his performance suddenly dips, then there's clearly a problem.
Conversely, others might seek more physical contact through handshakes or hugs, and seize opportunities to talk. So don't be misled by apparent extroversion!
Be sure to listen to other team members' concerns, too – they might be more aware of their colleague's feelings and emotions than you are.
Eight ways to beat loneliness in the workplace
We are naturally social beings, so good relationships are intrinsic to combating loneliness. So, the best way to tackle loneliness in the workplace is to build a culture of connection and community. Here are eight ways you can do this:
1 Assess the situation
If you suspect that one of your people is lonely or isolated, work on building up trust with her. Ask her to complete a test known as the Loneliness Scale. Be sure to explain the reasons why you think the test is a good idea, and let her know that it is entirely voluntary and that any findings will be kept confidential. Otherwise, you may risk alienating her instead.
Her test results will give you an idea of how connected she feels, and help you to identify any areas that you might need to work on.
If someone comes to you with a deeper problem, such as chronic stress, depression or anxiety, take it seriously. If the issue is causing him persistent unhappiness, seek confidential advice from HR and refer him to a qualified health professional.
2 Change your way of working
Your organisation's working practices may be making it difficult for your people to build meaningful relationships .
For example, you may work in a closed-plan office, which means that people are physically divided by the layout. Perhaps you work in a highly competitive environment, but instead of a having a healthy rivalry, people have become mistrustful and antagonistic towards each other.
To combat this, research and explore different ways of working. But make sure you get approval from senior managers before you put your ideas into practice – you'll need to get their buy-in before any significant changes can be made.
3 Build a team that has a shared direction
Purpose gives meaning to people's efforts, and a shared purpose builds camaraderie. So, counter the energy-sapping effects of loneliness by getting your team engaged in the wider impact of its work.
Be clear with your team about the types of behaviors that you would like to see, and work with individuals on any interpersonal skills that they need to develop.
Aim to build a team that has shared values. This will help to avoid conflict and seclusion, and will likely mean that new starters are a better "fit" with the rest of the team because their values and purpose are more aligned with the wider organisation.
Use your best judgment when you recruit people based on cultural fit. You need to be careful that doing this doesn't end up blocking diversity, as this can have a negative impact on innovation and creativity. It's also vital that you avoid discrimination, as this can have severe legal implications for you and your organisation.
4 Encourage good relationships
You can't force people to become friends. But you can encourage them to form bonds, by creating opportunities for collaboration, organising fun team building activities, and supporting inclusive and appropriate social events.
Be aware, however, that these activities may only get you so far. After all, someone can have hundreds of connections on LinkedIn, but still feel lonely. Instead of just collecting as many connections as possible, encourage your people to prioritise high- quality connections. This will ensure that the relationships that they do form are more fulfilling and valuable.
5 Take an interest in people's lives
Remember, work isn't the only thing in people's lives. Your people will likely have families, hobbies and friends outside of work, too. Take an interest in these aspects of your team members' lives by providing opportunities for them to be understood as individuals, with unique personalities and experiences, and listen to them with empathy.
You could follow the example of U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, whose team dedicated five minutes of each weekly meeting to learning about one another's lives. Management by Wandering Around and Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are also great tools for making connections and becoming more engaged.
Fostering a culture of trust and empathy in this way will likely make people feel safer and more secure, which can give them the confidence to open up about their vulnerabilities. Be sure to lead the way here by demonstrating that you're not afraid to talk openly and honestly about yourself and your own feelings.
6 Remember the little things
The smallest gestures can make the world of difference. Little things like making someone a coffee, picking up his print jobs, or just remembering to say "hello" in the morning will show him that you care, and that his well-being matters to you. Random acts of kindness like these will likely have a positive knock-on effect on the rest of your team, too.
If you're a manager, don't forget to prioritise your one-on-ones. These should provide a safe space for team members to share their feelings and thoughts with you, without judgment. Avoid canceling these meetings even when you're busy, and use them to discuss issues beyond immediate goals and tasks.
Avoid inadvertently excluding someone just because you don't relate to her as well as you do with other people on your team. Leaving someone out of the lunchtime chat, for example, can be very hurtful – and may even damage her career, particularly if you use this time to talk about work or new opportunities.
7 Tackle exhaustion
The more exhausted someone is, the lonelier he can feel. Moreover, a rising number of people feel exhausted because of work – in a 2016 study, nearly 50 percent of people agreed that this was the case.
Take care that your team members avoid exhaustion. Encourage them to work regular and sensible hours, to take proper breaks, and to agree clear boundaries that protect their work-life balance. And be sure to follow your own advice!
8 Remember virtual colleagues
Remote team members are particularly susceptible to loneliness, so be sure to reach out to them regularly. Save a few minutes at the end of conference calls or video chats to catch up with them and to ask them how they're doing, or use apps such as Sneek™ to make it easier for them to connect with you and the rest of the team.
And don't be afraid to break away from tech-based forms of communication occasionally. Email and messaging apps are great when you want to save time, but picking up the phone to have a chat with a remote team member is more personal, and it will reassure her that she matters.
Loneliness is a painful emotional response to feeling isolated. It is a widespread and growing problem in modern society and, apart from the negative personal impact it has on people, it can also have a detrimental effect on workplace performance.
One of the key ways to tackle and prevent loneliness in the workplace is to build a culture of connection and community. You can do this by following these eight key steps:
- Assess the situation
- Change your way of working
- Build a team that has a shared direction
- Encourage good relationships
- Take an interest in people's lives
- Remember the little things
- Tackle exhaustion
- Remember virtual colleagues
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