While it’s important to show understanding and compassion to any individual employee who feels isolated, it’s also vital to realise that their emotional withdrawal from the organisation will hinder their ability to do their job effectively.
In turn, this detracts from the overall emotional and psychological health of the team and ultimately the company. In short, loneliness can be described as an epidemic, because if one person in the team sews seeds of doubt about their purpose or worth, this attitude can begin to spread to those around them.
According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Vivek Murthy MD, the former US Surgeon General, loneliness rates in society have doubled since the 1980s, despite the fact we live in the most technologically connected era in the history of civilisation.
Research has shown that a massive 50% of CEOs have admitted to feeling lonely in their role. Murthy said that in his years treating patients, he found that loneliness had manifested itself in a lot of physical illnesses. He coined the phrase, the “loneliness epidemic”.
A 2011 study by the California State University suggested that management shouldn’t treat loneliness as a private problem, but should look upon it as something that affects the business.
In the United Kingdom, the Campaign to End Loneliness is aiming to influence public policies on isolation. According to a UK study, loneliness in the workplace is more common than many people might think.
Lack of support
An employee identified only as “Steve” described how his feelings of isolation grew after he took a new job as a London banking analyst when he was in his 20s.
He said there was no support or mentorship for new employees, who were left to their own devices. He found himself on a team with older, more experienced professionals, who would make a “snide comment” from time to time – a situation he found intimidating.
He found his self-esteem suffered and he began to feel increasingly isolated, preferring to say nothing at all because he feared he might embarrass himself if he said the wrong thing. This in turn affected his performance and eventually he left the company.
Another employee, known as “Anna”, started working at an office and began to feel like nobody noticed, or cared, whether she was there or not. Her colleagues weren’t deliberately mean, but even at lunchtime, they were busy playing with their phones, texting and looking at their social media sites, rather than having a conversation with a fellow human being.
Murthy’s academic article on workplace loneliness prompted a school of thought in the United States that meetings could help to alleviate the loneliness epidemic.
Whether it’s a meeting with just a few people and a chance to establish a better connection with them, or a massive conference with fellow employees from all over the country, who have previously been just a name on an email, it’s a chance to speak to people in person.
A study by the Meeting Professionals International Foundation (a non-profit organisation) into why people attend corporate meetings revealed the main reasons were networking, peer-to-peer interaction and learning.
A useful point to remember is that if you’re feeling lonely and anxious as you walk into a meeting on your own, you’re not the only delegate who feels that way.
If you’re already seated in a meeting and you see someone else walk in on their own, looking uncomfortable and heading for a corner table alone, invite them to join you and take part in your discussions.
Welcome people with smiles and conversation, rather than a blank stare. Soon, feelings of loneliness will begin to disappear, to be replaced by feelings of involvement.
Researchers for Gallup revealed that employees who had strong social connections in the workplace felt more engaged with their job and subsequently produced higher-quality work. Their self-esteem improved and negative emotions became positive ones.
Many studies have proven that employees bring more to their work when they feel connected to the company mission and their colleagues around them. Murthy has suggested bringing staff closer to each other at meetings by introducing a more personal element before the business begins.
He suggests asking team members to share something about themselves through photographs for a few minutes. This gives employees the chance to share who they are, while those listening can see them in a new light.
Make the first move
Another suggestion for employees feeling lonely is to make the first move at conferences. Step outside your comfort zone and if you see another person in the room who doesn’t seem to have any friends and who’s sitting alone, approach them, introduce yourself and ask them a question about their role in the company. This is the easiest way to get a conversation going with a stranger.
If you’re an event planner, take time to think of ways of encouraging interaction at meetings and social events. Although it isn’t the complete antidote to loneliness, small steps are all it takes to start aiding employees’ emotional health and ultimately the health of the company.
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