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
On an individual and team level
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.