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In today’s hyper-connected world, being lonely may almost seem impossible.
We have the ability to communicate with friends and family 24/7, virtually visit faraway places, and even play games with people all over the world.
In the workplace, regardless of whether work gets done in person, remotely, or through a hybrid model, too many meetings, emails, and Slack messages are often a prominent issue.
Yet we’re in the middle of a loneliness epidemic, with 57% of men and 59% of women reporting being lonely. For many, the holiday season is especially lonely, and can trigger feelings of sadness, comparison, and disappointment when expectations aren’t met.
What is loneliness—really?
Loneliness, contrary to what many believe, is not caused by isolation from other people. In fact, social scientists have noted that we can be alone and not feel lonely, and we can be surrounded by people and feel extremely lonely.
Psychology Today defines loneliness as the distress and discomfort caused by a perceived gap between the social connection we want and the quantity and quality of the relationships we actually have.
Post-pandemic loneliness persists
During the height of the pandemic, loneliness became a hot topic. As the workplace continues moving toward post-pandemic practices, many leaders have assumed that loneliness dissipated at the same time as physical isolation.
But polls and studies of employees and leaders indicate otherwise.
The American Psychological Association found that the pandemic only increased loneliness by around 5%, and a post-pandemic study by Cigna study shows that 58% of adults are still lonely.
A recent survey found that 82% of respondents have felt lonely at work, and nearly half experience more loneliness now than before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The mental health impact of loneliness
Loneliness is an emotional and mental state of mind that directly impacts the health of employees.
The National Library of Medicine reports that prolonged loneliness can lead to mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse, and suicide. It can also cause serious physical problems like cognitive decline, high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and even death.
Many of the mental health issues caused by loneliness create painful cycles. For example, if loneliness triggers anxiety, it can make the issue seem bigger than it actually is, and keep an employee from the social situations and interaction they need to feel connected–therefore increasing their feelings of isolation.
This is compounded even further for those with a pre-existing mental health condition. According to Cigna, “adults with mental health issues are more than twice as likely to experience loneliness as those with strong mental health.”
Loneliness is costly for organizations
Lonely employees are less productive and engaged, and this shows in the quality of their work and contribution—which significantly impacts organizations from a cost perspective.
Cigna found that employees who are lonely are “more than twice as likely as those who are not lonely to miss a day of work due to illness. They are five times more likely to miss work due to stress,” which is often increased by loneliness. Stress-related absenteeism costs companies an estimated $154 billion each year.
6 ways to cultivate a more connected culture
Since over half of men and women report being lonely, it’s safe to assume there are many lonely employees in your organization—and very few are talking about it.
Meaningful interaction and connection at work is an overlooked key to happier and more productive employees and leaders.
Here are six ways to create a more connected culture at your organization, so your employees feel safe enough to let down their protective walls, share how they’re feeling, and, as a result, feel less lonely at work.
Recognize the signs
Loneliness isn’t always easy to identify. Outgoing employees who are constantly interacting with their coworkers may be lonely, and the quieter ones who are more heads down may be perfectly content.
If you have fully remote or hybrid employees, loneliness may be even harder to detect. Knowing your employees’ personalities, preferences, and tendencies can help you more quickly identify when something seems off.
Keep in mind that although this seems counterintuitive, when people are lonely, they tend to turn inward instead of reaching out for help.
Some things to look for include:
- Lack of interest and motivation, which is reflected in declining quality of work
- Disengaging from and having trouble connecting with people
- Negative thoughts and feelings
- Fatigue or an apathetic attitude
- Filling the workday with tasks that require little interaction
- Avoiding company-sponsored social events and group activities
Normalize conversations around loneliness
Like so many mental health issues, there is a stigma around loneliness, and since it causes employees to turn inward, many don’t want to talk about it.
The first step to normalizing loneliness is to start conversations about this in the workplace. If someone in leadership is willing to share their struggles with loneliness, it can show employees they’re not alone, and help them open up to their manager, HR, or one of their coworkers.
It can be equally helpful to send out company-wide communication about loneliness, throughout the year and especially during the holiday season.
If you offer mental health support, remind your employees about what this includes and how to access and activate their benefit.
Ensure psychological safety
Employees also need to feel safe before they’re willing to talk about any personal challenge, even when it’s impacting their work. It can seem too risky.
Psychological safety is “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career.”
Psychological safety in an organization must be supported from the top down—with C-Suite and all People leaders committed to creating a culture that allows employees to safely talk about how they’re feeling and what they may be experiencing.
Here are five ways to do this:
- Train managers on how to provide consistent, constructive feedback to their direct reports
- Encourage People leaders to have weekly one-on-ones with their employees, where they can provide constructive feedback—instead of waiting until there’s a problem or performance review
- Also encourage employees to provide feedback to their managers, which can allow them to feel more valued
- Share your own struggles and challenges with other leaders—modeling this behavior can show how it creates trust, and motivate them to do the same with their teams
- Put policies and safeguards in place to prevent retaliatory behavior, and communicate a zero tolerance policy to the organization
Create brave spaces
To go a level deeper, in her book Dare to Lead, Brene Brown talks about the importance of creating brave spaces in the workplace.
A brave space “is a space where participants feel comfortable learning, sharing, and growing. It’s inclusive to all races, sexes, genders, abilities, immigration status, and lived experiences.”
It takes courage to open up about loneliness or other mental health struggles to a manager or coworker, and this is also a necessary step to overcoming those struggles.
Brene says, “Deep listening, curiosity, and empathy are the foundation of brave spaces. We need to be willing to hear people and believe them.”
Committing to creating brave spaces in your workplace can make the difference for whether or not employees feel comfortable reaching out for support. Listen to Brene’s recent podcast to dig deeper into how to develop brave spaces at your organization.
Cultivate opportunities for connection
Based on research I’ve done with the HR team at Lake Sumter State College, coworkers at all levels are more likely to move toward compromise—rather than conflict—when they have a social connection with their coworkers and managers.
Opportunities to build this connection can be offered at both the team and company-wide level, but keep in mind that the quality of interactions with others is most important, not the quantity of people involved.
Also, this will look very different for extroverts and introverts. Being aware of this factor when developing activities and the plans for participation maintains an inclusive, yet sensitive, approach to connection.
Fostering all coworker relationships is a proven strategy to increase wellbeing at work and decrease overall loneliness.
Offer a comprehensive mental health benefit
Given the correlation between loneliness and mental health issues, it’s critical to provide fast access to a comprehensive mental health benefit for your employees.
If an employee is lonely, they may not be aware of other struggles they’re having that are connected. Our clinically validated, 3-5 minute online assessment screens for over 12 different clinical issues, and then creates a personalized plan to ensure each employee receives the care they actually need.
If therapy is part of this plan, our AI-based technology uses millions of data points to match the employee with the right provider to help with their specific needs.
An employee’s need for support and guidance doesn’t end there, so our Care Navigators, who are licensed clinicians, are available 24/7. Our studies show that employees who work with a Care Navigator are eight times more likely to see a therapist and stay with the same provider.
Showing your employees they’re not alone
To be at their best, employees need to feel connected to their work and their colleagues.
Implementing even one or two of these strategies can increase the level of connection in your workplace, and help your employees know they’re not alone in the way they feel—especially if they’re experiencing loneliness.
Check out our guide, written by a Spring Health therapist, for more ways to support employees during the holiday season and reduce their stress.