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When approaching how to deal with loneliness, we need to start with a definition of being lonely. While there’s no universally agreed definition, Wikipedia is a good start:
"Loneliness is an unpleasant emotional response to perceived isolation. Loneliness is also described as social pain—a psychological mechanism which motivates individuals to seek social connections. It is often associated with an unwanted lack of connection and intimacy.”
It’s important to differentiate it from solitude, or ‘going solo’, which are voluntary conditions. Loneliness is the negative emotion we experience when we’re getting less social connection than we want or need.
It’s also common between all of us; something everyone feels at some point, like hunger or thirst, and we can usually fix it by seeking social connection.
Problems arise, though, when it’s a repeated or ongoing condition - and it’s getting more common in the modern workplace.
It’s complicated, actually.
The economic effects of loneliness are pretty difficult to measure. We know they’re significant; the phrases ‘epidemic’ and ‘public health emergency’ are frequently used to describe it. But defining exactly what loneliness is, investigating sequelae (the health effects it causes), and ascribing dollar values to it is quite a challenge.
A meta-analysis (study of studies) published in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology reviewed 12 different studies on economic costs associated with loneliness and social isolation, and found that there’s more work to be done in figuring out the truth:
"The paucity of evidence that is available primarily evaluating the economic costs of loneliness indicates that more research is needed to assess the economic burden and identify cost-effective interventions to prevent or address loneliness and social isolation.”
As for 2020 and the age of social distancing, the answer isn’t as clear-cut as you might expect.
Kasley Killam reports in Scientific American:
“According to several recent studies, loneliness has not only leveled out but, in certain cases, actually improved. Social distancing has made us recognize the importance of our relationships, which influence health and mortality as much as factors such as smoking and excessive drinking.”
One of the main problems is defining what counts as loneliness. Are you lonely because you haven’t been able to meet your friends at the bar much in 2020? Or are you just missing the beer?
How long do you have to go without human contact to be defined as lonely? And what medical conditions are definitely caused by loneliness? There doesn’t seem to be conclusive answers to these yet, but we can learn a lot from individual perceptions shared via surveys.
The causes of loneliness vary by person, although oftentimes it is tied to lower self-esteem or not feeling worthy of the connection and attention of others. 2020 was a bit of a different animal because of some lockdowns and restrictions in parts of the world -- and those physically prevented people from being together, which scales loneliness.
Some of the other more notable causes of loneliness include new schools, new cities, new jobs, new relationships, etc. Working from home is a potential cause of loneliness, and that’s going to need increasing research as some companies shift to hybrid models (some on-premise work, some remote work). One of the core managerial skills of the next five years is going to be team development across distributed teams, and “team development” in that context will mean fostering connections between teammates and helping employees on how to deal with loneliness.
As for the loneliest generation, because that is a question people ask, the World Economic Forum answer seems to be millennials. A recent YouGov poll found 30% of millennial respondents “always or often feel lonely,” compared with 20% of Generation X and 15% of Baby Boomers.
This is important to know, because it actually is possible for loneliness to shape your personality, much as it’s possible for your personality to affect the likelihood that you’ll feel lonely.
This is based on research from Marcus Mund and Franz Neyer at the Institute of Psychology at Friedrich Schiller University, Jena in Germany, who measured the personality traits, loneliness and subjective health of 661 healthy young adults (average age 24) in 1995 and then tracked down 271 of them in 2010 and asked them the same questions (by which time the average age of the sample was 40). To measure subjective health, participants simply responded to the question “How is your health in general?” on a 5-point scale from “very good” to “bad”.
Ultimately, the personality measures taken in the participants’ youth correlated with their health and loneliness scores in mid-life; also the loneliness and health measures in youth correlated with personality in mid-life.
It’s an interesting two-way dynamic. If you are already feeling lonely, and as a result you don’t attempt to go out and interact with people and try new things, your personality can become increasingly isolationist, which will lead you to feel more lonely. It’s a bad circle to get caught in.
We have some strategies for combating loneliness further down in this article, but it should be noted that a lot of research on overcoming loneliness is tied to work and having a job, because it’s one key source of human interaction. Now, obviously in 2020 that was very different for a chunk of the working world, and the models we’re seeing going forward may have less human interaction as well. So it’s not the perfect solution, but it’s certainly one approach.
It’s not necessarily good to be alone all the time, no. But some people are natural introverts, or don’t need the energy of other people to thrive day-in and day-out.
That said, human beings are social animals, and most studies with hospice nurses -- here’s a good one -- show that people at the end of their life crave more relationships and friendships, not more work or tasks or projects. So you do need to make an effort to prioritize relationships and be with people periodically. That doesn’t mean you need to be the life of the party or have a huge circle of friends or get married very young or anything like that.
You can still be quiet and still and consumed by self-driven activities, but you should try to be with others some of the time. Even if you find that exhausting, being with others can expose you to different attitudes and perspectives and ways of thinking which can be beneficial to your own belief structure.
We will keep talking about personal implications of loneliness for a second, then shift to professional implications. In your personal life, here are some approaches around how to not feel lonely:
These are some of the personal approaches on how to deal with loneliness. Now, because work is a big chunk of many people’s lives, we need to turn to the professional implications of loneliness as well. There’s obviously some overlap.
An employee outlook survey was performed by the UK’s Chartered Institute for Professional Development. It investigated the cultures and structures of businesses that the 2226 respondents were employed by.
55% of respondents said they’d prefer to work in a company that had a ‘family feel’, but only 25% of them said they currently work at one that fits that description.
Looking for an employer that’s ‘held together by loyalty and tradition’ was equally desired, meaning it’s not just the family-style connection people want - it’s the job security. And the two often go hand in hand.
While the survey was conducted in 2015, it’d be interesting to see how opinions change in the post-COVID world, with increasing remote work and employment disruption seen across the globe.
All-remote SaaS company Buffer were one of the pioneers of remote work. Working with a globally distributed team, they’ve done some significant research into remote work culture, culminating in 2020’s State of Remote Work report. Data was taken from a survey of over 3,500 remote workers around the world in early 2020 (prior to the pandemic).
The survey found that 20% of respondents name loneliness as their biggest struggle with working remotely.
But the analysis wisely identifies the fact that while remote work is linked to loneliness, it doesn’t necessarily cause loneliness:
"Remote workers feeling lonely is also an accurate reflection of a larger-scale societal struggle with loneliness. In the U.S., loneliness has been labeled an epidemic. In the U.K., almost one-fifth of the population has reported that they are “always or often lonely.”
According to the Remote Work 2020 report by Remote.tools, which surveyed 331 remote workers from various distributed companies, 27% of remote workers are unable to separate work from their personal life, leading to a further deterioration of mental health.
When your work isn’t specific to a location, it can give a great sense of freedom. But the downside is losing out on that psychological barrier between work life and home life. If you’re answering work emails late at night from your bed, boundaries have been crossed in an unhealthy way.
Knock-on effects from workplace isolation can have significant effects on your mental health.
Loneliness statistics have revealed that loneliness can increase the amount of cortisol (often known as the stress hormone) circulating through the body, putting stress on the immune system and increasing the risk of a range of illnesses.
A meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry studied 88 different studies on the topic and found that loneliness has "a moderately significant effect on depression”. That’s about as strong a link as you could ask for, given that both loneliness and depression are complex conditions with lots of variables affecting them.
And as published in the Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research, loneliness is something we should all be wary of: "Loneliness is a common experience with 80% of the population below 18 years of age and 40% above 65 years of age report loneliness at least sometimes in their life.”
Two findings from the Loneliness and the Workplace 2020 US Report by Cigna show the links between being out of work and feelings of loneliness.
They polled 10,441 adults in the United States, investigating their feelings on the UCLA Loneliness Scale. Results on this scale range from 20 (not lonely) to 80 (very lonely).
Americans who feel as though they work less than they want (49.6) are almost three points lonelier on the UCLA Loneliness Scale than those who work more than they want (46.9), and more than six points lonelier than those who feel they work as much as they want (43.5). These findings suggest that being out of work is a lonely existence - especially for those in precarious employment without a guaranteed amount of hours each month.
(Remember there are other socioeconomic consequences of not having enough work; not just a reduced opportunity for meeting new friends and connections through the work itself, but having less disposable income to spend on social activities outside of work.)
What’s more, people who report that they don’t have good relationships with their coworkers are lonelier than those who do (53.7 vs 43.7). This isn’t surprising - if you don’t get on with your colleagues, you’ll feel less socially satisfied.
You see some of this discussion flaring up now when people talk about “no one wanting to work” due to unemployment benefits in some countries. That’s predominantly a political dog whistle, however; while some people don’t want to work, most people do -- because it’s a potential source of action and purpose and proactive mental health, which many seek out ultimately.
Three telling statistics were revealed in Perkbox’s 2020 UK workplace stress survey:
"Work-related office politics’ (37%) are the most common cause of work-related stress, followed by ‘lack of interdepartmental communications’ (34%), and ‘the work performance of others’ (33%).”
Changing from office-based work to remote work will disrupt each of these:
Does this mean working from home will cause a reduction in work-related stress? Possibly, but it’s complicated. While these will contribute to a less stressful working life (along with the absence of unpleasant commutes), other factors will have the opposite effect: taking care of children at home, lack of work-life boundaries, precarious economic conditions, and increased loneliness.
As with anything, you need to work at it when considering how to deal with loneliness and why you yourself might be so lonely.
First: consider your feelings and background and what drives your feelings of loneliness. Do you feel like you need more friends? More hobbies? More plans? More channels to meet people? Better relationships with co-workers? Make a list of the inputs to your loneliness as a first step in how to deal with loneliness.
Second: create a plan. What activities could you join? Who could you reach out to? Could you organize something with co-workers, even if over video? Could you create a book club at work, or something similar? Could you join a sports league? There will be some fear in this stage, especially if you have lower self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy, But you need to push through as best as you can.
Third: be consistent. The more consistently you can enact processes and actions and plans, the better you will start to feel in the context of how to deal with loneliness. You may even feel like you’re surrounded by people eventually! That’s a beautiful transition.