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  • Tamar Balkin

How Can Leaders Help To Reduce Loneliness At Work?

“It's a long road

When you face the world alone

No one reaches out a hand

For you to hold

You can find love

If you search within yourself

And that emptiness you felt

Will disappear”


Hero by Mariah Carey (Click here for the song) 


 

We hear you

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash


 

“So we have a big change program starting soon, my team needs to be united and support each other and I want to make sure the new employees feel connected and welcome”

Coaching client.


 

Sadly, not all leaders are alert to the social connections in their teams. Leaders  know the importance of collaboration, yet employee isolation is often ignored, or mismanaged.  Whilst the US Surgeon General in 2017 described loneliness as “a modern epidemic” in need of treatment, psychologists have been studying loneliness in the workplace for decades.


Recent global research by Gallup indicated that a quarter of people report feeling very or fairly lonely, with older adults the least likely to report feelings of loneliness.


What is loneliness?


Comedian Robin Williams made a salient observation in 2009: “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel all alone.”

 

Psychology researchers make a clear distinction between loneliness and being alone, in both life and work.


According to the AIHW, Social isolation 'means having objectively few social relationships or roles and infrequent social contact'. Yet loneliness, is the 'subjective unpleasant or distressing feeling of a lack of connection to other people, along with a desire for more, or more satisfying, social relationships'. 

 

Due to the nature of loneliness, the same work environment could fulfil the interpersonal needs of some employees while leaving others feeling lonely.


Lonely individuals have heightened vigilance towards social threats, often exhibiting confirmatory and memory biases. These tendencies lead them to perceive their social environment as threatening and harsh, and they may become defensive about interpersonal relationships. Employees who experience higher levels of workplace loneliness are less willing to invest themselves emotionally with their colleagues and the organisation as a whole.


The greater the perceived loneliness, the greater the likelihood of negative attributions about others, which prompt awkward or negative behaviours.  Researchers have found that the high prevalence of low social skills amongst the lonely occurs despite lonelier individuals not starting with lower social skills initially. In addition as people feel more lonely they turn their attention inward which impairs their capacity to have empathy for others. Low empathy hinders  ones ability to connect effectively and to be perceived as approachable and friendly in social situations.


Sadly it seems that the people who need to build secure relationships have the most trouble doing so.


 

“Imagine a condition that makes a person irritable, depressed, and self-centred, and is associated with a 26% increase in the risk of premature mortality. Imagine too that in industrialised countries around a third of people are affected by this condition, with one person in 12 affected severely, and that these proportions are increasing. Income, education, sex, and ethnicity are not protective, and the condition is contagious. The effects of the condition are not attributable to some peculiarity of the character of a subset of individuals, they are a result of the condition affecting ordinary people. Such a condition exists—loneliness.”


John T Cacioppo, Stephanie Cacioppo


 

Researchers have consistently found that loneliness negatively impacts all aspects of health, in particular mental health and overall well-being. In addition, loneliness may impair intellectual functioning. 


In the workplace loneliness negatively impacts job performance, relationships, with peers, and stakeholders, and organisational commitment. 


 

“a perceived sense of social connectedness serves as a scaffold for the self—damage the scaffold and the rest of the self begins to crumble.”


Louise C. Hawkley, Ph.D. and John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D.

 

Addressing loneliness is the responsibility of the individual, the team, and the organisation

 

 

Organisational responsibilities:


Social interventions aimed at increasing social support and/or promoting social engagement have also been shown to reduce feelings of loneliness. Researchers have found that the physical work environment can have a positive impact. However, it is not simply encouraging everyone to come into the office all the time or on certain days. Remember the definition of loneliness: it’s the feedback from the environment that creates loneliness.When promotions are based on what people achieve, how they go about their work, their character and their skills, employees feel socially fulfilled.     


Regular readers know that recognition and reward drive motivation. Researchers have found that loneliness is exacerbated when promotions and reward mechanisms are based on technical skills and poor interpersonal behaviour is ignored.  

 

 

The leader


Regular readers would know that the behaviour and attitudes of the leader greatly influence the culture of the team. Thus all organisational-wide and team-based approaches to alleviate loneliness require input from the leader to increase the chances of success.


Inclusion and connectedness are enhanced when a leader highlights how each person is valuable to the work and makes people feel connected to something greater than themselves. Whilst financial targets and stakeholder expectations are critical. Leaders need to take opportunities to recognise individuals who make a conscious effort to make others included. Assumptions that someone volunteered for an assignment, may be occasions when someone is “volun-told” to take on extra work.  Although tasks such as aiding others, foster team unity, they tend to be time-intensive, frequently undertaken by the same individuals, and go unnoticed.  


The leader has the responsibility to:

  • Show a personal interest in employees, and constantly reinforce a sense of shared meaning

  • Educate his team on the nature and manifestation of loneliness

  • Promote a culture characterised by kindness and psychological safety.

  • When appropriate encourage impacted employees to access professional help. 


The individual


Due to the complexity and self-perpetuating loop that often accompanies loneliness, professional help from a clinical psychologist can be beneficial. 

 

What about my client?   


Initially, he devoted a team meeting to fostering genuine connections among team members, encouraging them to apply their rapport-building skills used with clients to strengthen relationships within the team.In addition, they committed to undertake the following  long-term initiatives: 

  • Stopping and properly greeting each other

  • Regular informal catch-ups

  • Project support teams – to enable regular sharing of the challenges and successes of the change program.


 


Nala waiting to give support


 

Final thoughts:

Studies indicate that having companion animals can help mitigate feelings of loneliness by providing companionship, encouraging social interaction, and enhancing perceived likability. Combining human social support with pet ownership can further reduce loneliness and mitigate social isolation. Interestingly, dog owners tend to experience greater well-being benefits compared to owners of other types of companion animals.


While I can’t loan you my lovely Golden Retriever, Nala, I am certainly available to meet for coffee and catch up.


 

References: 


Ellis, A., Stanton, S.C.E., Hawkins, R.D. and Loughnan, S. (2024). The Link between the Nature of the Human–Companion Animal Relationship and Well-Being Outcomes in Companion Animal Owners. Animals, [online] 14(3), p.441. Doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/ani14030441.


Staff, A.W.E. (2022). Women, make non-promotable tasks a non-starter. [online] AWE. Available at: https://inawe.com/women-make-non-promotable-tasks-a-non-starter/ [Accessed 20 Mar. 2024].


Loneliness is a modern epidemic in need of treatment. [online] New Scientist. Available at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn26739-loneliness-is-a-modern-epidemic-in-need-of-treatment/ [Accessed 21 Mar. 2024].


Hawkley, L.C. and Cacioppo, J.T. (2010). Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, [online] 40(2), pp.218–227. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3874845/.



Mohapatra, M., Madan, P., & Srivastava, S. (2023). Loneliness at Work: Its Consequences and Role of Moderators. Global Business Review, 24(3), 433-450. Https://doi.org/10.1177/0972150919892714


Ozcelik, H. And Barsade, S. (2011). Work Loneliness And Employee Performance. Academy of Management Proceedings, 2011(1), pp.1–6. Doi:https://doi.org/10.5465/ambpp.2011.65869714.


Park, C., Majeed, A., Gill, H., Tamura, J., Ho, R.C., Mansur, R.B., Nasri, F., Lee, Y., Rosenblat, J.D., Wong, E. And mcintyre, R.S. (2020). The Effect of Loneliness on Distinct Health Outcomes: A Comprehensive Review and Meta-Analysis. Psychiatry Research, 294, p.113514. Doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2020.113514.


‌ Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2023). Social Isolation and Loneliness - Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. [online] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Available at: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-welfare/social-isolation-and-loneliness.


Maese, E. (2023). Almost a Quarter of the World Feels Lonely. [online] Gallup.com. Available at: https://news.gallup.com/opinion/gallup/512618/almost-quarter-world-feels-lonely.aspx.


Cacioppo, J.T. and Cacioppo, S. (2018). The growing problem of loneliness. The Lancet, [online] 391(10119), p.426. Doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(18)30142-9.


Wallace, V. s (2023). Workplace Loneliness Is Real. In-Person Work Alone Will Not Cure It, Questrom Researcher Says. [online] Boston University. Available at: https://www.bu.edu/articles/2023/how-to-deal-with-workplace-loneliness/.

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