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Why are so many of us lonely at work?

By August 16, 2019November 23rd, 2020Blog
Lonely at work

Why are so many of us lonely at work?

Are you lonesome… at work?

We are in an age of growing technology, transactional work, global operations, a younger workforce (Millennials and Gen Y) and a shift to flexible and remote working arrangements. The relationships we form at work are at risk, if not already beginning to dwindle. Recent studies are focussed on employees showing symptoms of being lonely at work. 37% of Australians, in fact, or one in four feeling lonely during the week.

It begs the question, how did we get here?

What is loneliness?

According to the Australian Loneliness Report in 2018, it is a feeling of distress that people experience when their social relations aren’t the way they want. A person can have lots of relationships, and still, feel lonely because those relationships aren’t as meaningful as they would like or need.

Why does it happen?

No doubt we can point the finger at technology.  Employees spend most of their day looking at a screen; we can send an email instead of talking to someone or Instant message someone who is in the same room. We can run a complete project through a computer program, and we can be very easily distracted with social media, ignoring what or more importantly who is physically around us.

Tech can also enable us to be more flexible about where we work – no longer are we limited to using tech in the office or at our desk. We can choose to work from home or at the local café – we can sit in a “coffice” and spend time working amongst people.

We also have an emergence of people who choose not to be socially interactive, who decide for whatever reason to step back from environments with lots of personal contacts.

What’s changed?

Is this a new revelation that employees are lonely?  Did it happen in the ’50s, ’60s or ’70s, but we just didn’t know about it, talk about it or study it? Alternatively, were people’s expectations of a work environment different? Was going to the office a social highlight – where solid relationships were made for life, was having a smoke and a drink with the person at the desk next to you the norm? Without the rules, regulations and policies now surrounding the workplace, have we turned a nanny state into a lonely state, with people too afraid or anxious to converse?

We may never know the answer to this question; we can only speculate. Maybe it existed, perhaps not on the same scale as it does today. Maybe the workplace culture was completely different.

What happens to a lonely person at work?

Being lonely at work has adverse effects on a person’s ability to be productive (of the 37% of lonely people, 40% of those said they felt less productive). Lonely people suffer from more negative feelings and emotions and less happiness, which relates directly to productivity.  The US general surgeon claims that loneliness has the equivalent effects of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Not an ideal state to be in!

Loneliness can cause anxieties around social interactions, poor health, sleep and general fitness and safe care. 38% of lonely people also report making more mistakes at work with then 38% reportedly get sick.

As a human race, we have an innate and fundamental need to belong. Finding your tribe, a community, a family, to connect with others.

How do we fix it?

  1. Be like the UK government and appoint a minister for loneliness! Appoint a variety of people in your workplace to ensure everyone is included in work events and celebrations. As the new saying goes – “Diversity is inviting everyone to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.”
  2. Get a work wife/husband. There are many reports that show having a person that you confide in, share and emotionally trust in at work is beneficial to your health and wellbeing. It’s an intense, purely platonic connection that can have a positive ripple effect on the entire office.
  3. Understand how much time you spend on your computer. Turn off your alerts, close your email program and take back control of your time.
  4. Have shorter meetings with people. Long meetings are counterproductive and kill morale. Don’t take your computer into the session unless you have to. Focus on the people in the room, not the screen.
  5. Take a mental health first aid course and be aware of the symptoms and warning signs that someone may be struggling.
  6. Encourage Work-Life Integration – not balance. This is the idea that technology has blurred the lines between work and life (think social media). Leaders need to trust that people can work to the best of their ability, be human at the same time and manage other things!
  7. Physically meet with remote workers or ensure face to face meeting regularly. This might mean you have to travel, and this might be costly to the business. But so is the recruitment, onboarding and training of a new employee. You can also get creative – use technology to your advantage here.  Jump on any number of free video conferencing apps, and use these for face time until you can be there in person.
  8. Go crazy with more person-to-person communication, pick up the phone and speak, instead of sending an email, walk over to someone’s desk and ask the question you need the answer to. Say hello, good morning, how are you, are you ok, that’s a cute outfit, see you later, goodbye. Any of these words can make someone feel included. Seriously – what’s the worst thing that could happen in response. Nothing. Chat with someone new – approach someone whom you haven’t met or spoken to. Set yourself a goal – a new person a week, or a month (depending on the size of the organisation). It doesn’t matter if you are 100% invested or 10% invested in the chat. Make an effort, listen to someone for 30 seconds about their weekend. You will be surprised at how quickly you will find common ground.
  9. Enjoy celebrations as a team. Applaud the wins, congratulate people in front of others. It makes people feel appreciated.

Some people exercise their right to resist interaction – and that’s ok. Make sure that just because they don’t want to be involved once, that you don’t ask again. Keep in touch!

These solutions can be easy, free or low cost. Any CEO, HR Team member, manager, or employee can set the standard for their workplace with the commitment and compassion to be the person who will start the conversation.

Looking for advice to implement employee engagement strategies to ensure your team doesn’t feel lonely at work? Find out how the Strawberry Seed team can help.

Frances Orr

Author Frances Orr

Frances is a Human Resources professional with a passion for supporting small business. She is also an accredited Mental Health First Aid Instructor.

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