You're sitting at your work desk surrounded by colleagues. There is constant movement, noise and workplace chatter, and suddenly you realise you don't have a real connection with any of these people. You are confronted with the superficiality of your workplace relationships, and you feel totally alone.
We live in the most digitally connected age in history, yet a significant portion of Australians feel rates of loneliness are increasing. More than one-third of respondents in a 2017 Relationships Australia survey on loneliness reported a lack of companionship and isolation, and 55 per cent of all calls to Lifeline's crisis support in 2016 were from people living alone.
Loneliness is a reflection of the quality of our social connections and relationships with others. Loneliness at work decreases our sense of belonging, makes our work less psychologically rewarding and reduces our feelings of attachment to an organisation. This can reduce performance and creativity, and impair decision-making.
Furthermore, lonely people are unlikely to disclose their feelings of isolation to others in the workplace, as they feel they cannot be helped and may be stigmatised. We worry that if other people know or see our loneliness that we will judged as not worthy of connection. Research Professor at the University of Houston, Brene Brown, believes we cannot properly experience love, happiness or belonging unless we can be truly vulnerable by putting ourselves out there. “In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.”
Research has shown how extended periods of loneliness can affect a person's health and gene expression, leading to higher levels of chronic disease. Those who have strong social connections and a feeling of belonging experience lower blood pressure, less inflammation and better heart health. While blood samples of inherently lonely people reveal decreased activity in cells that fight infection, and increased activity in cells involved in inflammation and immune response.
Most of us spend more time with our coworkers than we do our friends and families, and who we spend our time with is more important to workplace engagement and well-being than what we are doing. A Gallup study of more than 15 million employees found that those who report having a 'best friend' at work (30 per cent) are seven times more likely to be engaged at work, are less likely to receive an injury, and work at a higher standard. “Researchers found that even small increases in social cohesiveness lead to large gains in production.”
Ill health caused by the stress of loneliness is bad for business, resulting in more sick days, lower levels of engagement and less resilient employees. A strong sense of belonging at work will improve employee commitment to an organisation, and strengthen an employee's ability to cope to workplace pressures and negative workplace changes like pay cuts, downsizing and even broken promises.
People bring their best selves to work when they feel connected to the cause and those around them. So how can a workplace improve and strengthen the social connections of its employees?
Evaluate the quality of your workplace relationships. Do you feel like your colleagues or employees genuinely value and care for one another? Social connection is not simply about how many friends you have on social media or how many people you talk to during a work day. The quality of our social connections is more important than the quantity, hence why we can sometimes feel lonely in a crowded room. Having lots of connections can be dissatisfying if those connections consist of weak social ties and acquaintances, and do not provide a strong foundation of social support.
Aim to improve workplace social connections by creating opportunities to learn about employees lives, and encouraging employees to reach out when they need help or support. When senior team members exemplify this, it will promote a culture that supports connection, and doesn't stigmatise vulnerability. Hire employees that fit the culture of your organisation, and organise appropriate non-work related activities.
Lastly, make the effort to speak to colleagues regularly at work; they'll most likely welcome the chance to connect. Connection is so important to our well being and sense of purpose – it's how we're wired, and it's why we're here.