Managing People

Loneliness: The New Workplace Crisis

By Advanced Resources on May 25, 2018

Most people who leave regular positions in the corporate world to work as telecommuting consultants in the gig economy will say that the biggest adjustment they have to make is getting used to being alone. The shift can be quite jarring, particularly to someone who is energized by people, loves leading teams, and enjoys dissecting the latest episode of Black Mirror with coworkers at the water cooler. In general, being physically alone isn’t actually a problem; after all, different people prefer (and need) different amounts of social interaction. But when people feel socially and emotionally disconnected from others, true loneliness can result.

The loneliness of telecommuters has been well documented. But as it turns out, loneliness isn’t just a work-from-home issue: it’s also a workplace epidemic. Because workplace loneliness can have particularly widespread ramifications, HR needs to address it—even when employees don’t mention their loneliness and manage to get all of their work done. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. So far 2018 is experiencing better-than-expected job growth, with the unemployment rate (4.1%) at its lowest point the last 18 years. These numbers mean that employees who are unhappy at their currently workplaces (perhaps because of loneliness there) can easily find greener pastures.
  2. Workplace exhaustion can lead to burnout and loneliness. The resulting disengagement can have serious business consequences, including “almost 37% higher absenteeism, 49% more accidents, 16% lower profitability, and a 65% lower share price over time.” A disengaged employee is never good for business.
  3. Loneliness has a huge negative impact on human health. One former U.S. Surgeon General explains, “Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity... Loneliness is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety.”

Combat Loneliness in the Workplace

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It’s time for HR to put down the policy book and focus on its most important work: building connections, inspiring trust-based practices, and creating positive employee experiences. Here are some things HR can do to mitigate loneliness in the workplace:

  • Hire managers with high emotional intelligence.

    Modern leaders must have the ability to read emotions, show empathy, build trust, and make connections. A leader who lacks empathy won’t be attuned to an employee’s signs of loneliness.

  • Ensure that leaders prioritize one-on-one time with their team members.

    A leader who builds trust with employee is more likely to know if they are disconnected, unengaged, or lonely. The only way for a leader to build that trust is to spend time talking with them.

  • Allow employees to be their true selves.

    The loneliest place to be is a place where people have to pretend to be something that they aren’t. When a team’s members look and act exactly like their leader, that isn’t a coincidence but is instead a sign that the leader doesn’t let people be themselves. Get rid of those leaders.

  • Create networking groups within the organization.

    Skill-specific guilds, volunteer groups, “lunch and learn” groups, and in-house professional development groups provide “shared experiences” spaces where people with common interests can meet each other. (And because connection isn’t achieved by throwing together people who don’t know how to talk to one another, offer actual “networking” classes to employees as well.)

  • Do “personal history” exercises with team members.

    The best way to build trust is through sharing and allowing safe spaces in which team members can be vulnerable. Patrick Lencioni’s “personal history” exercise is one effective way to strengthen connections.

  • Use tools to measure engagement, assess one-on-one time, and recognize employees.

    Leaders often point to “lack of time” as a reason for their failure to connect with employees. With so many technological solutions to make this part of a leader’s job more efficient, that excuse is no longer valid.

  • Check on the CEO.

    One of the loneliest jobs in the world is being a CEO. Don’t forget them.

Even as technology makes it possible for people to connect in more ways than ever, many people at work struggle to make connections that are genuine, deep, and nurturing. The solution is to emphasize the human aspect of those connections. And with the word human in its name, HR is better situated than any other department to identify, prevent, and mitigate loneliness in the workplace.

This piece originally appeared in Advanced Resources HR Insights Magazine.

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