Reading surveys on loneliness in recent years indicating 40% of the workforce is lonely is depressing in itself. Young workers, the current 18-24 age bracket, have the highest incidence of loneliness of any cohort.
Work and time at work is such a large part of most people’s lives that employers need to view it from the worker’s perspective as more than a paycheck, but rather a meaningful connection and pleasant enough use of time. If productivity, competence and low turnover are strategic priorities, social connection should be too. Social connection among co-workers and collaborators increases engagement, which raises productivity and retention.
Former Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy wrote a fine article on the subject for Harvard Business Review. I have summarized his thoughts and added my own commentary in the article below in the hope that employers and leaders make serious and sustained efforts to reach an increasingly disengaged and personally isolated workforce for both the individuals’ and firm’s benefit and well-being.
The most prevalent loneliness problems are suffered currently by the youngest workers and students, Gen Zers, whose formational influences have been dominated by social media, fears of terrorism and cybercrime, and competition for jobs with robots. The current age bracket of 18-24 has a 50% higher incidence of loneliness than even the elderly. Further, more than one-third of adults are chronically lonely, and 50% of chief executives experience loneliness – it’s a tough job and can be isolating. That’s a bad omen for both health and job performance.
The dangers of excessive screen time and social media participation are debated but have been shown to exacerbate loneliness and depression affecting college and younger students as they often don’t convey reality and feel left out by others’ seemingly perfect lives. Dominant use of electronic communications often replaces personal face-to-face interactions. In the latter, subtle distress signals and messages of warmth and caring are more likely to be conveyed and can prevent mental health damage.
Interest in the dangers of loneliness is so high that the Unlonely Project, founded by a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Jeremy Nobel, even has a Film Festival and Conference. He wrote that “Loneliness saps vitality, impairs productivity and diminishes enjoyment of life.” The research found its effects match the impact of obesity, alcohol abuse and smoking 15 cigarettes a day, raising the risk of early death by 30%.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT CONNECTION CONSTRUCTIVELY
This state of affairs needs more than the superficial fixes usually prescribed at work such as team exercises, happy hours and what may seem to some people like forced socialization with work colleagues they have not formed bonds with (as yet anyway).
The interactions need to be meaningful conversations in which people can learn and grow from each other’s experience and shape their feelings of purpose. This is a perfect opportunity for the cross-generational conversation remedy.
These suggested actions can take place in formal gatherings initiated by an employer or at informal gathering initiated by anyone. So much depends on the attitude and perspective that individual leaders and co-workers bring to work.
On an organizational level
- People need to feel connection to the mission, purpose, vision and values. That requires making sure all personnel know what those are – clearly. Use simple, emotionally rich language.
- Rather than people feeling they need to hide who they really are, encourage them to bring their whole selves to work, share photos and what is important to them outside of work. Commonalities across generations will breed connection as will curiosity about things people would like to learn from each other.
- Praise vulnerability and those individuals that stretch their comfort level to reach out to each other as well as, reciprocally, to accept help and invitations to connect. ( See the “Initiate Reciprocity” chapter in You Can’t Google It!)
- Define and build understanding of what a high quality relationship is – what it feels like and looks like – with positive emotions, “trust and empathy” (another chapter focus in You Can’t Google It!)
- Evaluate the state of social connections at work, that is, the depth rather than the number of “friends.” In the institutional culture, do people been valued and cared for?
- Model a culture that embodies strong social connection as a strategic priority.
On an individual and team level
- It’s important to get people to feel a desire to know more about each other. (For ideas, see the “Curiosity” chapter in my book, You Can’t Google It!–The Compelling Case for Cross-Generational Conversation at Work.)Enable and encourage times for people to listen and share their stories with others, not necessarily as friends, but as respectful co-workers who can benefit from things they learn from each other. It must feel OK to take the time. Avoid the fear that it will be perceived as slacking off from a high intensity, time pressured culture.
- Individuals also can create opportunities to learn about external stakeholders beyond their role at work. Those connections will elevate the client/customer, alliance partner, referral source, and alumni experience and improve loyalty all around while they reduce the siloed, isolated feelings that can develop and hinder the employee experience.
- Worthwhile social connection can be made by asking gradually, not as probing, questions about hobbies and other personal interests, volunteer activities, charitable causes and worldviews,
- Asking from a sincere attitude of curiosity, even about fears for society or the local community, can prevent people from retreating into “tribes.”
- Be diligent and prompt about expressing appreciation to others for their interest in you, and reciprocate.
- Realize that changes in people’s lives – whether traumatic like deaths of loved ones. Illness or divorce – as well as happy like childbirth, a new job or moving from school to a job, can bring on feelings of loneliness. Reach out to others for your own benefit as well as theirs and share experiences from any part of the age spectrum. Warm feelings will result.
The future of work culture is likely to be more fear and isolation if we all don’t reach out to others with empathy, another one of the 10 essential traits and skills necessary for GENgagementtmsuccess, and satisfaction at work.
Engage: How has the lack of social connection impacted organizations you are part of?
Attention to encouraging friendly conversations – cross-generationally and cross-functionally – will help to reverse the prevalence of the loneliness plague and foster a culture of connection.
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