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Loneliness in a Connected World

If you are like 91 percent of your fellow Americans, you have a smartphone nearby as you are reading this article. In fact, you may be reading this on your phone.

According to Statista, the number of worldwide smartphone users is expected to exceed 2.1 billion later this year. In this time of tremendous technological saturation, we are more connected to others than at any time in our history.

But are we, really?

According to research from former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy published in a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, loneliness has increased exponentially since the 1980s. Today, more than 40 percent of American adults say they feel lonely, and Murthy’s research suggests that percentage is actually much larger. Given that technology does not really provide real-world, in-person interactions, it’s not surprising that fewer and fewer people believe they have a close confidante in their lives.

How can this be?

We are “connected” to everyone via technology, including e-mail, texts and social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram, and we have “always-on” access to nearly everyone and everything.

But, as Dr. Murthy’s research illustrated, the feeling of loneliness stems from inadequate social connections, not technological connections. And with more geographic mobility and more people living alone than ever, it’s no wonder that this sense of isolation has risen dramatically since the 1970s.

It’s interesting data, but you may be asking why businesses should be concerned with this trend. As long as employees work together while on the job, what difference does it make for U.S. businesses how their employees actually feel, especially off the clock?

As it turns out, loneliness is having a tremendous impact on the workplace.

Murthy’s research found that loneliness causes stress, and long-term loneliness leads to more frequent elevated levels of the hormone cortisol. Higher levels of cortisol increase the likelihood of heart disease, diabetes, joint disease, depression, obesity and, ultimately, premature death. Chronic stress also negatively impacts a person’s decision-making, planning, analysis, and abstract-thinking capabilities.

In fact, Gallup found that employees having strong social connections at work produced higher-quality work and were less likely to be sick and/or become injured on the job.

Needless to say, business leaders have now begun to focus on this issue of loneliness. In his HBR piece, Murthy recalled a process to bring together a growing leadership team in the Surgeon General’s office. Specifically, they developed an exercise in which employees were asked to “share something about themselves through pictures for five minutes during weekly staff meetings.” Murthy said these sessions “quickly became people’s favorite time of the week, and they felt more valued by their colleagues.” And stress levels declined significantly for most team members.

Is the solution really that simple – just share a little personal information during weekly meetings? Probably not. Fortunately, Murthy identified five steps that will build social connections and lead to healthier and more productive relationships at work.

  1. Evaluate the state of connections in your workplace. This includes assessing whether employees think their colleagues genuinely value and care for them and believe the institution has a culture that supports giving and receiving kindness.
  2. Build understanding of high-quality relationships. Strong social connections are characterized by meaningful shared experiences and mutually beneficial two-way relationships. Therefore, it is important to “be clear with employees and colleagues about the type of relationships you want to see at work, and what type of actions foster those relationships.”
  3. Make strengthening social connections a strategic priority in your organization. This requires “buy-in and engagement from all levels of the organization, particularly leadership.”
  4. Encourage coworkers to reach out and help others… and accept help when it is offered. This includes assisting others when you may be feeling lonely. It turns out that extending help to others and allowing yourself to receive help builds a connection that is mutually affirming.
  5. Create opportunities to learn about your colleagues’ personal lives. The likelihood of creating “authentic social connections” is greater when people feel validated and appreciated for who they are at work and at home. They’re not just colleagues but also mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, siblings, friends. They have spouses or significant others and passions and hobbies outside of their job duties.

Murthy ranks modern-day loneliness at an “epidemic” level and recommends taking action now to “build the connections that are the foundation of strong companies and strong communities.”

To continue to prosper in our rapidly evolving business world, it’s time that leaders of America’s businesses lead the effort to increase connectedness within their organizations – through social gatherings and other efforts – out in their communities through team-building volunteer opportunities and other workplace-sponsored charitable efforts.

Joseph Gier, Ph.D. is Vice President – Consulting Services at EASI•Consult® and is a licensed Psychologist. EASI•Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. EASI•Consult has incorporated the Burke LAI™ into various solutions including identification of future leaders, leadership and individual assessment, leadership development, executive coaching, professional-level individual contributor assessment, and 360-degree feedback. EASI•Consult also offers online employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about EASI•Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call 800.922.EASI.

 

 

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