Loneliness at work: the silent destructive force

Feeling Alone in a Crowded Room

No one wants to admit that they are lonely….

Loneliness has a certain stigma attached to it and we often perceive lonely people as weak or outcasts, often denying our own feelings of loneliness. 

Yet, perceived social isolation (loneliness) is on the rise and US statistics state that this epidemic has doubled since 1980 to over 40% of people reporting that they are lonely. 

Whilst being alone is beneficial and is required in order to connect back to our centre and sense of self, feeling lonely on the other hand, is extremely detrimental to health and wellbeing with far reaching implications in the workplace. 

In other words, if employees are lonely at work, it is not good for business, employees or our society. 


Lonely Research

John Cacioppo’s research on loneliness spans over 20 years with some fascinating findings on a species that is very social (that’s us). Our brain and biology have been shaped to favour being part of a group to the extent that our makeup believes our survival depends on it. 

We have a number of invisible forces at work every single day, trying to ensure that we favour connecting as a group such as neural, hormonal and genetic mechanisms.

And when we begin to feel lonely, it is our body trying to tell us that we need to connect with people. Not just because it’s a nice thing to do, but because our wellbeing and health depend on it. 


Loneliness Shortens Life

Cacioppo found that living with loneliness increases our odds of dying early by 45%. You may want to read that again!

When we are lonely we go into preservation mode, increase our stress hormones and more likely to fall victim to a whole host of unhealthy impulsive behaviours.

So at work we may think an employee is disengaged and apathetic because they do not like their job, whereas they may simply be feeling lonely and not connected to the people they work with.


Where we Are Most Lonely

I am going to state the obvious here and share, that the place where we spend the majority of our time (aka work) can be a very lonely place for some. 

When we are lonely at work we are more numb & defensive, because we have gone into preservation mode……(no room for compassion, curiosity and engagement here). We are focussed on our own welfare and not open to other people’s perspective, not at all conducive to working in a team. 

And yet …many of us have no idea someone at work is feeling isolated and lonely. 

One very large study conducted by Caccioppo found that our brain will give more attention to negative events happening in our social environment when we are lonely.  

So if an employee is feeling lonely at work, their brain may close off to the positive ways to connect at work and instead, is giving more attention to negative social situations. 


Connection at Work is Key

The more we can foster a workplace culture that focuses on connection and encouraging more good quality social relationships at work, the more engaged, happier and healthier humans at work will be. 

At the risk of making employees sounding like victims, I believe we spend so much time at work and feel workplaces have a certain moral obligation to foster this type of culture.

Is this going to look the same for every organisation and every industry? No, but we do know that wanting to connect and feel like we belong is universal with every human being. 

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