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What defines loneliness?
There’s no universally agreed definition, but 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.
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.
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 in 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.
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.
In a single word: absolutely. A few years ago, Groupon (of all places!) commissioned a study about work stress. It found that 20% of respondents worked 10+ hours a day, 50% said workload was preventing them from work-life balance, and yet 53% said that, despite how much they were working, they still had significant financial concerns. When the amount of work is not in line with the rewards from the work, there’s usually misalignment resulting in workplace anxiety.
Now, a few years later, the context around workplace anxiety and stress is significantly higher. Harvard Business Review has called what many of us experience right now “the anxiety-distraction feedback loop,” whereby you feel anxious about Covid-19 and its implications on your work and your family, so you look for distractions.
That typically works for a minute, but then you feel anxious again, so you again seek Instagram or some such, and the loop persists. Productivity is not necessarily the cousin of workplace anxiety, no.
Frontline workers have, logically, reported increased stress and anxiety. As areas of the world “re-open,” there are increased searches for safety precautions in offices. Parents are nervous about what’s going to happen with childcare.
Into this whole mess, we need to introduce another wrinkle: remote loneliness. Twitter and Square, two Jack Dorsey companies, are going “WFH permanently.” Other companies are letting employees decide, or not reopening their HQ until September, or “reconsidering everything,” i.e. Barclays.
We know that extended working from home is probably going to be good for the environment, but what of the human condition? Commuting from your kitchen sink to your couch is cool, and millions of people were doing it daily around the world before Covid-19, but if you’re not used to that model … how do you stay sane and connected?
Offices have drawbacks, yes. But offices are also areas of random and beautiful energy, new ideas, different conversations, and personal and professional growth.
So when we add remote loneliness to the bigger workplace anxiety context, we have a pickle. We can’t necessarily escape the pickle with “more happy hours on Zoom.” What now?
We’ve been studying these concepts for years at F4S. Here’s what we’ve broadly come to: there are employees who thrive in group environments, and those who thrive in solo environments. Sometimes, the same individual may thrive in both, in different contexts.
Someone who thrives in a group environment needs to have people around them, and engaging with their work and ideas, in order to be productive.
They love on-the-spot questions, and are not afraid to interrupt others (and usually don’t mind being interrupted). They are driven by the energy of the mix of personalities and approaches to problem-solving constituting an office.
Someone who thrives in a solo environment needs space without auditory or visual distraction to get things done; this is partially why you saw the rise of “pod” spaces in Silicon Valley offices about 10 years ago, because many programmers fit this mold.
Once the zone is breached, it can take a solo environment person a long time to get back into said zone. While they can appear reclusive or distant to some other employees, especially the group-focused ones, this is less an issue of introvert vs. extrovert and more an issue of preferred productivity style.
Many solo environment employees would be super fun at happy hour -- but to maximize their workflow, they need that cone/pod context.
The first step is the same first step as any other managerial process: talk to your people. Understand them. Get to know what makes them tick, how they think about work, how they like to work, how they like to be productive, etc.
You do not need to be best friends with your employees – it’s a common managerial fear – but you do need to understand their work styles, because without that knowledge, it’s hard to manage them.
In and around Covid-19, a solo environment employee probably has an inherent advantage in terms of productivity.
With solo environment team members, you want to make sure:
Now, the group environment crowd is going to struggle more with remote loneliness and workplace anxiety right now.
With group environment team members, you want to:
One of the hardest parts about work, and especially about organizations scaling up, is that a lot of advice about communications or management are a “one-to-many” approach, i.e. an Intranet board, an employee newsletter, or the like.
But people are individuals, and every employee has a different connection to the work, to the purpose of the organization, to their own working style, and more. Management needs to be more one-to-one, especially in trying times.
We don’t know exactly what “The New Normal” might look like, and it will vary by industry and organization. But there are some general rules we can follow in terms of stress and anxiety:
This is a weird time business-wise in part because some industries are collapsing and contracting, and some (think user-generated content brands) are exploding.
If you have increasing or decreasing workload, that can be a source of anxiety and stress — those with decreasing workload will begin to assume they’re on the layoff list. When someone has decreasing task work, give them longer-term, strategic projects to work on. Prepare for a wave in demand that way.
If you are doing layoffs, do them in a humane way. Have the manager do the layoff, with HR on the flank. When people’s friends and co-workers get laid off in a third-party, questionable way, those remaining begin to feel anxiety (and resentment).
If you are growing, consistently communicate about the new workload, explain what types of new hires you are working for, and provide either increased compensation or an incentive/bonus structure for current employees. No one wants to take on lots more work without some type of monetary adjustment.
The conventional model of workplace social events, i.e. happy hours or bowling or concert attendance or a baseball game, might be shifted for the next six months or more.
If you’ve been having success with virtual happy hours, keep it going. If there’s a way to do bake-offs or potlucks in a central office location where the food and the food line can be spaced out, also go for that.
At all-hands meetings, virtual or IRL, have a lengthy kudos and acknowledgements section. People are feeling stressed, anxious, and a tad lonely (they are not seeing their friends as much!) in this time. Getting a work kudos could be a huge aspect of their day.
Some feel this concept is cheesy, but it works in numerous organizations. Especially if you’re growing and bringing people onboard during a very different time for your business, assign buddies.
These aren’t necessarily mentors, as peer relationships can work fine, but they are employees who check in on other employees to chat about things like:
It’s almost a de facto managerial role, and might be good for those who want a management track in their future. It allows managers to focus on their deliverables (while also checking in with their people, of course) and have some help on the anxiety temperature-taking, which is just as important as the fever temperature-taking right now.
Previous F4S success on leadership styles has shown that roughly 4 in 5 employees are motivated by goals, whereas the other 20% is motivated “away from problems,” i.e. by challenges. This applies to leaders too, and when people become leaders, their motivation methodology carries through -- so if they were motivated by goals, that’s how they drive others.
The “away from problems” (challenges) model can work, but in a high-stress period of time like a pandemic and concerns about returning to work, the “goals” model of leadership is likely to be more effective.
If you are a leader who drives others around challenges and problems – we see this in tech often, as the underlying goal of tech is commonly to fix some inefficiency – it might be better to take a softer, step-by-step, goal-rooted (“let’s accomplish this for this week”) approach for the near-term.
Even before Covid-19, mental health and stress and anxiety were coming to the forefront as organizational issues. In late 2016, Wharton was writing articles titled “The Pursuit of Happiness is Making Us All Nervous Wrecks.” The former Surgeon General of the U.S. had been saying that 2 in 5 American adults felt “chronically lonely,” even though we live in the most-connected era in human history. And the “biggest threat” facing middle-aged men, who tend to hold lots of decision-making authority in companies? It’s not smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.
HBR did an entire 2017 cover story package on “Work And The Loneliness Epidemic.”
These concepts were out there. Discussions were already being had. People were reconsidering their connections to work, to how they want to be managed, to where they want to work from, to how they want to interact with co-workers, to acceptable workloads, to what they want from their careers.
As we’ve heard on a few fronts, Covid-19 is an accelerator. Brick-and-mortar retail and higher education were models that needed a shift; Covid-19 will likely accelerate that shift. Workplace anxiety, loneliness concerns, and stress are another area where Covid-19 will accelerate our approaches to dealing with mental health and the emotional well-being of our employees.
The above is the beginning of a guide, but it all comes back to checking in and making people feel heard and appreciated, and allowing them to work in the way they want to work to be successful. Isn’t that what you want from work too?