We live in an age where loneliness has been described as a social epidemic with a study by The Co-op and the British Red Cross stating that over 9 million people in the UK across all adult ages – more than the population of London – are either always or often lonely. This isn’t just an issue for the elderly. It can affect any of us throughout our lives.
While there are national measures and bodies tackling the issue of loneliness, the focus below is on what we can do as leaders and managers in the workplace, to ensure that while at work, at least, our colleagues are included, feel a sense of belonging and are confident.
Who is affected by loneliness and what are the effects?
Loneliness affects us all; the Royal Voluntary Society found men reported that the age of 38 was the time at which they had the fewest friends. The Co-op report states that loneliness among people in work costs employers £2.5bn a year. Jo Cox, whose passion for addressing loneliness led to the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness said “young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate”. The commission warns that loneliness is damaging people’s physical and mental health and is more harmful than obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
How does loneliness happen in the workplace?
Loneliness can also be thought of as social isolation. There are many roles in the workplace that require independence and solitary time to get work done. That doesn’t need to mean that loneliness is the natural outcome. In addition, even those who have a social network outside of work can feel isolated at work if excluded through not having their opinions heard, not feeling that they are part of a team, not having a sense of belonging and not having the chance to connect in a positive, affirming way with others. As Stewart Dakers says ‘Loneliness is not about being useless but being unused. It is about being unknown, disappointed, deprived of something to look forward to’.
Social Psychologist, Dr. Abraham Maslow, ranked “belonging” as third in his Hierarchy of Needs for human satisfaction and fulfilment. Human beings need to feel that they fit in. While this is in part through finding their work interesting and having meaning, it is also due to feeling connected to their colleagues.
How can we create conditions to dismantle loneliness at work?
Each and every one of us has the power to make a difference to someone else’s feelings of inclusion, connection and camaraderie. If we are a manager of a team we have even more of an opportunity. Here are some simple things within your control that can help:
- Purpose – Ensure that each person in your team knows how they contribute and that what they are doing matters. Help them to understand the difference they can make.
- Value – Give recognition for work well done no matter how small. Don’t assume that your appreciation is obvious.
- Connection – Be sure to spend time on creating a team climate where camaraderie is nurtured. If you know yourself to be task-oriented, hold back from jumping into conversations purely about the work. Invest time in relationships. Take time to ask how others are and really listen. Connect with team members, and encourage them to connect with each other, finding common interests and offering support.
- Share of voice – create conditions in meetings where everyone can have their say, where there is no such thing as a stupid contribution, and where interrupting others is unacceptable (interruption is what Nancy Kline calls ‘intellectual vandalism’). Use of the Thinking Environment and ‘rounds’ where each person gets equal air time to express thinking can significantly impact how included each team member feels.
- Walk in other’s shoes – set expectations that difference is valued and raise awareness that each of us have concerns and worries that others are unaware of that can contribute to a feeling of ‘otherness’, not-fitting-in, or concerns of being judged. Accenture’s ‘Inclusion start with I’ can be a great eye-opener and conversation starter in a team meeting.
Finally, I believe that we can all benefit from slowing down our pace enough to create space for human connection at work. Rather than being a luxury that we can’t afford time for, connection is essential for human health and wellbeing, and a kind word or listening ear can make an enormous difference to the recipient. We don’t know who of our workplace colleagues are feeling lonely, but we can take some simple steps to assist in minimising this in our sphere of influence.