According to a report in the Harvard Business Review, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher. Additionally, the number of people who report having a close confidante in their lives has been declining over the past few decades. In the workplace, many employees — and half of CEOs — report feeling lonely in their roles.
Loneliness is the subjective feeling of having inadequate social connections. From a biological perspective, we evolved to be social creatures. Long ago, our ability to build relationships of trust and cooperation helped increase our chances of having a stable food supply and more consistent protection from predators. Over thousands of years, the value of social connection has become baked into our nervous system such that the absence of such a protective force creates a stress state in the body. Loneliness causes stress, and long-term or chronic stress leads to more frequent elevations of a key stress hormone, cortisol.
Causes of Loneliness
Why has this feeling increased over past decades? Partly because people are more geographically mobile and are thus more likely to be living apart from friends and family. In the workplace, new models of working such as telecommuting and some on-demand “gig economy” contracting arrangements have created flexibility but often reduce the opportunities for in-person interaction and relationships. Loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making. Loneliness is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. For our health and our work, it is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic quickly.
What We Can Do
Our understanding of biology, psychology, and the workplace calls for companies to make fostering social connections a strategic priority. Research has demonstrated the link between social support at work, lower rates of burnout, and greater work satisfaction and productivity. A more connected workforce is more likely to enjoy greater fulfillment, productivity, and engagement while being more protected against illness, disability, and burnout.
Designing and modeling a culture that supports connection is more important than any single program. It will require buy-in and engagement from all levels of the organization, particularly leadership. Having senior members of an organization invest in building strong connections with other team members can set a powerful example, especially when leaders are willing to demonstrate that vulnerability can be a source of strength, not weakness. Ask yourself if the current culture and policies in your institution support the development of trusted relationships. The most important factor in work happiness, a UK study showed, is positive social relationships with coworkers.
Team building events designed by Premier Meeting Services encourage personal interaction, build trust, and improve social skills. Once our clients recognize that they have a “loneliness” problem, we investigate to uncover the cause and then design a program to address the issues. There are multiple causes of loneliness in the workplace:
- The popularity of remote “work from home” environments
- The diverse geographic span of international corporations
- The solitary nature of certain tasks
- Highly competitive work environments
- Generational diversity
The world is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness. If we cannot rebuild strong, authentic social connections, we will continue to splinter apart — in the workplace and in society. Instead of coming together to take on the great challenges before us, we will retreat to our corners; angry, sick, and alone. We must take action now to build the connections that are the foundation of strong companies and strong communities — and that ensure greater health and well-being for all of us.