The consequences of our feel-good-at-all-costs culture have finally caught up with us. It’s produced a generation (or two) of people who are depressed and feel lonely, isolated and misunderstood at work. It’s got to be hard to spring from the coddled world of childhood into the real world, where folks don’t get a blue ribbon just because they show up.
Reality is a slap in the face for new workers who come from our school system where the adults in the room stumble all over themselves to make certain the student is accommodated. Need a tutor to get a better grade? No problem—mom and dad will pay for it. Need more time to take a test? No problem—a school administrator will make sure it happens.
When these pampered students enter the workforce, they’re confronted with different ethical standards, inflexible rules, and tight deadlines. They move from “safe places” on campuses where they are protected from language and ideas they find offensive to an environment that appreciates straight talk and end results.
Rather than academia preparing students to enter today’s workforce, it’s given graduating students a crippling and unfair expectation of what lies ahead of them. The result is an alarmingly large number of younger employees who find the workplace lonely. One of the consequences of this sense of desolation is a higher rate of mental illness among those same employees.
In a recent survey conducted by U.S. health insurer Cigna Corporation, more than 80% of Generation Z and 69% of Millennials are lonely and feel isolated at work. They leave their used coffee cups on the counter and expect others to clean up. Older employees, however, are apt to feel less lonely and a greater connection to their co-workers. They’re also the ones who wash their coffee cups and put them back in place.
There’s a big difference in attitudes, not only about themselves and in their role in the world but about others as well.
Apologists for the younger workforce point to our current political environment to explain this phenomenon, but no—politics has always been divisive. They also point to climate change as the reason our delicate offspring experience a profound sense of hopelessness. News flash—WWII, the Korean War, Vietnam, and Iraq weren’t a bag of fun and games either, but the majority of those soldiers have been able to assimilate into society. Those that haven’t continue to suffer serious episodes of Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder (PTSD) and our mental health system needs to make them a priority.
My point is that those soldiers experienced serious trauma and continue to experience severe anxiety, yet the majority of them fight to overcome the challenges and don’t give up because it’s uncomfortable. We all fight different wars, and to win the battles we need the mental toughness to move through adversity and land on our feet when confronted by the unknown—or the uncomfortable.
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Let’s take a closer look at why more people feel lonely and isolated at work:
1. Heavy Use Of Social Media
Experts have found that a heavy reliance on social media impacts our communication styles and the way we interpret our conversations. Social media hounds tend to shun face-to-face interactions in favor of texts and Snapchat. Texts are great but they’re like bandaids that patch us up until we get the real thing—personal interaction that leads to real connection. If we eschew the effort it takes to meet friends face-to-face, it becomes a slippery slope because a thousand friends on social media are not the same thing as one good friend who sits across from you over a cup of coffee.
How To Make It Work For You: There’s nothing wrong with social media but we all need a time-out every now and then so we can deepen other relationships. That said, I’ve developed great long-distance relationships via Zoom and FaceTime. It’s the personal face-to-face interaction that’s important. We all need a place where we can engage in honest conversations and exchange personal information that creates meaning for us.
2. No Time To Develop Friendships
Friendships allow people to construct a network of people whom they can rely on when they need them. There’s no one perfect way to develop friendships but it’s always quality that outranks the quantity. Statistics indicate that most people only have an average of four really close friends.
Scientists can look at a person’s brain to see how it responds to a set of videos. They can then show the same video to people within the person’s social network and record their brain’s response as well. The scientists can predict who the person will become friends with based on how the brains processed the information.
We tend to develop friendships with people who are like us. We like people who see and hear the world as we do; we have something in common. Research shows that it takes about 50 hours with someone before the relationship can go from an acquaintance to a friend, and another 200 hours with them to consider them a best friend.
How To Make It Work For You: It doesn’t take intense conversations to develop friendships. Instead, it’s honest conversations about how you’re doing in life. The point is to share aspects of your life with other people, preferably face-to-face over a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, or a bottle of beer. When you tell others that you want to catch up with them, it’s a signal that you care and value them enough to spend the time with them.
3. A Lack Of Balance Between Personal and Corporate Values
Technology has allowed us to delve deeper into issues that are important to us with almost surgical clarity. Older generations didn’t have the time to explore or access to information that formed their personal values. In fact, many Boomers, Generation X, and older Millennials, would struggle to identify values that don’t involve job titles and corner offices. Young Millennials and Generation Zers are different; they feel the friction between their own values and those of the company for whom they work. What’s more, they’re not willing to compromise their values and aren’t afraid to voice them which can leave younger workers—well, lonely and isolated.
At a time in our society when we encourage people to be more transparent and authentic, younger workers find few opportunities to do so. Often their personal values are compromised because of how they conflict with the values of the company.
How To Make It Work For You: The remedy is twofold: First, the onus is on the employee to thoroughly vet their potential employer before they accept terms of employment. Second, in equal measure, the onus is on the company to meet the challenge of developing a corporate culture that will attract and retain a generation of workers who want more from their job than a good paycheck. Younger workers look for, and expect, a sense of corporate responsibility.
4. Leadership That Doesn’t Embrace Change
We are all the product of our environment. Boomers grew up with an appreciation for rules, authority, and the perks of a successful career above everything else, even their own family. Boomers raised Generation X which turned out to be a latch-key generation because their parents spent all their time on their careers. Those Xers are now raising Zers who are tech-savvy and living on social media.
Generation Zers stand 68 million strong and will have a significant impact on business and the workforce in the future. They are also direct conduits to current trends and technology so companies need to find ways to lure these talented people into their ranks and make them feel welcomed.
How To Make It Work For You: In large part because of their upbringing, younger Millennials and Gen Zers have a different set of needs to consider. They include a need to:
- Share their values and who they are at their core.
- Receive constant feedback.
- Be treated as individuals and not just another employee. Personalization is a deep trend, especially for Gen Zers.
- Have permission to work remotely so they can enjoy side hustles and hobbies.
- Use videos as a way of communication.
- Feel respect for life-work balance from leadership.
5. Breakdown On Updated Approaches To Disabilities and Mental Health Issues
Companies are confronted with a young workforce who aren’t able to articulate their disability other than in vague terms such as severe anxiety or stress. In the old days, disability meant a broken leg or migraine headache so today’s leadership is forced to take a closer look at how mental illness and disability affect their bottom line. Furthermore, management and leadership leave themselves open to lawsuits from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) if they fire an employee with mental health issues.
Young adults between the ages of 18-25 have the highest mental illness of all workers. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the number of students in the U.S. who felt so much stress that they couldn’t complete their homework more than tripled between 2000-2016.
According to Cigna, lonely workers take twice as much sick leave as others and are less committed to their organizations. Additionally, they have lower performance ratings from their supervisors. It’s in the corporation’s best interest to listen to health care experts’ advice on how to meet these growing problems.
How To Make It Work For You: Leadership needs to recognize disability and mental health issues for younger workers often center less on a specific issue and more on a change in the nature of the work itself. For example, younger workers want more flexible schedules, more say in when and how their work is completed, and unpaid leaves of absence.