If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that connection makes everything we do more meaningful, including our work. Employee loneliness has always been an issue, but the topic has become increasingly urgent over the past year as many finance professionals have been working from home, isolated from colleagues.
“I think one positive aspect of the pandemic is it has finally opened up a real conversation about employee loneliness,” said Constance Hadley, lecturer in the management and organisations department at Boston University. “I've had more people reach out to me about loneliness in the last six months than in the years before when we were trying to get the conversation going.”
Some argue that loneliness is an ongoing epidemic, with 61% of Americans surveyed by health insurance company Cigna reporting that they are lonely, a 7% increase between 2018 and 2019. Loneliness not only affects individuals but has been shown to negatively impact engagement and productivity at work, with lonely workers thinking of quitting their jobs more than twice as often as non-lonely workers, according to Cigna’s research.
“There is a chance after the pandemic that if we see opportunities increase again and unemployment goes down, those employees who are feeling disconnected will be the first to leave,” Hadley said. “So capture them now.”
If you want to hold on to valuable talent, consider these five tips for detecting and addressing loneliness in the workplace.
Diagnose the issue. No one wants to admit they’re lonely, which makes it a tricky problem to diagnose. Hadley argued that step zero is assessing the degree to which people within your organisation support having conversations about loneliness and are willing to provide valid data. If your organisational culture eschews emotionality and views expressing vulnerability as undermining professionalism, there’s a risk that people won’t accurately report their levels of loneliness.
Another hurdle to diagnosing loneliness in the workplace is that loneliness is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, according to Hadley.
“Research in the psychological literature shows that people who are lonely actually act in ways that confirm their loneliness,” she said.
Lonely people might come across as standoffish or aloof to others, they might opt out of social events like virtual happy hours, and they might not participate in the chitchat at the beginning of meetings, because deeply embedded in the psychology, there's an unconscious feeling of, “I don’t know these people, I don’t like these people, and they don’t like me — so why bother?”
“Your loneliest people might be the ones you think are either deliberately trying to avoid social connections or are very self-sufficient and seeming not to need them,” she said.
Hadley and her colleagues are working on a survey tool that will be used to assess the extent of an organisation’s loneliness problem, but until that becomes available, managers who are trying to gauge levels of employee loneliness could ask everyone to fill out an existing form, such as the UCLA Loneliness Scale, which measures subjective loneliness and feelings of social isolation. If you’re concerned employees won’t respond truthfully, you could make the forms anonymous to get a general idea of loneliness levels across the organisation.
Normalise loneliness. Because loneliness is such a widespread issue, Hadley recommends normalising it and simply assuming everyone is struggling to form deeper connections.
“Let's take advantage of the fact that the pandemic has amplified understanding, awareness, and concern for it, and start trying to make the conversation about it normalised and not make loneliness a stigmatised condition,” she said.
Normalising loneliness can be as simple as expressing to your teams that many people are feeling this way and, if you are feeling lonely, you’re not the only one. It’s also important for managers and company leaders to express their own feelings of loneliness because that gives tacit permission for others across the organisation to open up about their struggles, which can help create a psychologically safe environment.
Create interactions that go beyond pleasantries. Increasing the quantity of interactions between colleagues will not necessarily fix the loneliness problem because what matters is the quality of those connections.
Hadley recommends managers facilitate structured interactions that encourage employees to go beyond pleasantries and share anecdotes that reveal their personalities. She has used games as ice-breakers to find common interests and build connections amongst colleagues.
“Those kinds of facilitated sharing activities I think have good potential, as long as they are appropriate for the culture and not treated as a waste of time,” she said. “I think people need a nudge and structure to get to know one another.”
Once people discover they share a passion, hobby, or interest, organisations can encourage them to form workplace affinity groups. Hadley said that in academia, she often felt siloed in her work, but forming a workplace affinity group of other moms at the university, where they felt they could talk about anything, helped to alleviate feelings of isolation.
Hadley added that managers and company leaders should encourage employees to spend work hours with these affinity groups to make it clear leadership understands these connections are necessary to improve both employee wellbeing and engagement.
If your team is working remotely, she recommends having employees use an online platform for personal news, or a photo board where people can put up pictures from their weekend, because these venues often feel less awkward and forced than a Zoom happy hour.
Use technology to enhance connection. The increased isolation created by the pandemic has spurred technological innovation that seeks to alleviate the problem.
Professor Chris Rowley, The Business School, City, University of London and Tohoku University, Japan, argued that these technologies are worthy attempts at addressing the loneliness problem, but they must not be seen as magic bullets.
“Increased use of technology should not be used as a quick ‘sticking plaster’,” he said. “It needs backing up with proper support. Employers need to reduce employee feelings of isolation by building a sense of belonging and community.”
For example, he said there are tech platforms that help do this by enabling organisations to bring employees back together virtually.
Organisations can certainly try out some of these tools if they make sense within the company culture; just be sure they’re helping to enhance connection rather than exacerbating feelings of isolation.
Make sure everyone has a “home team”. When Hadley studied the structural aspects of teams, she found many were designed to keep members focused on the task, get the work done, and move on as quickly as possible to the next project. “That rapid, high-efficiency focus just robs people of the time it takes for those relationships to develop,” she said.
Hadley recommends organisations make sure every employee has a “home team,” meaning a group of people they consistently work with over the long term that allows them to develop deeper work connections. Employees can work on multiple teams, but having a home team relieves the burden of every team needing to foster strong interpersonal relationships.
“You want to make sure there’s a lot of psychological safety within these home teams, so people feel they can reveal their emotions, and come to those people for help if they're feeling overwhelmed, isolated, or lost,” she said.
— Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.