Posted by Alicia Waltenberger.
I love that feeling of having the house all to myself, when my husband is at work and my kids are at school. But I often wonder how different my alone time might feel, if it was a permanent state—with no expectation of having that peace and quiet eventually disturbed, by the laughter and bickering of loved ones. Then the joy of solitude might quickly degenerate into its flipside: The discomfort of loneliness.
The lonely office worker
If you’re reading this at your desk, you’re no doubt in an office full of people, none of them alone exactly—but some of them lonely: It has been estimated that one in five Americans suffers from chronic loneliness.1
You can’t identify lonely people based on looks or intelligence, or even on how many Facebook friends they have—what sets them apart is their perceived sense of loneliness; the sense that their relationships are not emotionally rewarding. Don’t assume that just because a co-worker is gregarious and popular, they don’t feel lonely.
Paradoxically, I feel less lonely working from home than when I’m in the office, surrounded by fellow humans. After all, being alone and being lonely are totally different things.
The corrosive effect of stress hormones
Loneliness doesn’t only make us sad, but can be really bad for our health, as well.
Nowhere was this made more apparent to me than in a recent New York Times article titled “The Surprising Effects of Loneliness on Health,” which listed disrupted sleep, abnormal immune responses and accelerated cognitive decline as potential effects. The article suggests that loneliness is a growing epidemic, which can impair health by raising levels of stress hormones and inflammation—which in turn can increase the risk of heart disease, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, dementia and even suicide attempts.2
Loneliness can also lead to poor health behaviors, such as bingeing on fatty or sugary food, heavy drinking, drug addiction and less exercise.
Strengthen your co-worker community with everyday empathy
Technology is a wonderful tool, but online connections are no substitute for face-to-face or even, voice-to-voice interactions. That’s why I make a conscious effort to pick up the phone more and make actual conversations with people when working remotely. No email, however skillfully worded, can replace the human voice with its immediacy and nuances of tone.
Unfortunately, some people are using the internet as a crutch rather than a tool to leverage existing relationships. Screens increasingly monopolize our attention, making it easier to avoid eye contact. With many of my closest colleagues working in other offices, I have no obvious business incentive to nurture relationships with those I happen to share office space with. But having a strong network of virtual coworkers is no substitute for flesh-and-blood interactions. However busy I get in the office, I make sure to take the time to make meaningful connections with people as I pass them in the hallway each day.
Empathy is a social glue and good manners are a gateway to empathy. The stock “How was your weekend?” if said in a tone of actual interest, can go beyond its usual function of filling an awkward silence. “You seem stressed” or “That project must have been really time-consuming” are even better ways to show you care; your coworker will likely be relieved to offload their pent-up problems to a willing listener.
And actually, there is a business incentive, too.
Lonely employees can be less engaged and less productive.
Unhappy employees are often less engaged in their jobs, less productive and more likely to leave when the opportunity arises. So, doesn’t it make sense from a business point of view for managers to foster stronger bonds between team members? From a staff retention perspective, you have a solid argument to make with HR to pump resources into social events and other ways to give people the opportunity to form better relationships with one another, either through organized meet-up groups, mentoring programs or simply better-designed common spaces, which recognize that social interactions are a fundamental human need.
By caring about the social well-being of your coworkers, everyone can benefit from the improved social cohesion, and your team becomes more resilient in the face of challenges. On an individual level, social bonding is linked to increased wellbeing and networking opportunities.
Too many of us simply grit our teeth throughout the day, knowing there’s a sympathetic spouse, friend or family member to vent to at the end of it. But considering how much of our lives are spent in the workplace, and how bad an effect loneliness can have on our health, it is worth making that extra effort.