Loneliness is a public health crisis that impacts the overall mental health status of US workers and their ability to contribute on the job. Leaders must now manage this new epidemic, which was brought to national attention by Dr. Vivek Murthy, the 19th and 21st Surgeon General of the United States in a prescient article written with his wife, Dr. Alice Chen. The article, published in March 2000, warned of a “social recession” caused by a breakdown in communal bonds due to the lack of physical contact experienced during COVID-19. Little did we know then how profound an impact loneliness would have on wellbeing in the workplace. Nor did we appreciate the forces contributing to employees feeling a dearth of wholeness, ultimately compromising their ability to be successful at work.
As organizations have adapted to a new post-COVID-19 world, leaders have grappled with work structure decisions. Do we demand everyone come back to the office full time, or adopt a hybrid policy? Do we allow managers to decide who can work remotely and who cannot? Or, do we adopt a fully remote work policy and forfeit prime office real estate to meet worker demands for flexibility? As leaders continually navigate a changing reality, human behavior factors need to be contemplated along with economic and workflow considerations. Let’s examine the forces that compromise employee wholeness by eroding wellbeing in the workplace and examine what leaders can do to address them.
According to Dr. Murthy, there are four forces that contribute to people feeling anxious, worried, lonely and pessimistic about the future, which he described in a recent edition of On Being, a podcast hosted by Krista Tippett. These forces were in play long before COVID-19 struck and have been exacerbated since. They induce a state of chronic stress which causes workers to function at sub-optimal levels. And, because most employees will spend more than 85,000 hours of their lifetime at work, leaders play an important role in fostering wellbeing in the culture, which includes understanding how to mitigate the impact of four factors that erode it:
1. Pace of change
Individuals are constantly challenged to keep up with the unprecedented speed with which our world is changing, on a social, interpersonal, political and economic level. These changes influence how we view our own worthiness, capability and perspectives on success. It’s easy to understand how employees can become overwhelmed by change when you consider that they are juggling change at work as well as change in their personal lives and the larger world. Little seems predictable, which can lead to anxiety at home and at work.
Leader Tip: Do as much as possible to communicate expected workplace changes to your team as quickly as they become evident. Do not let employees discover changes through the rumor mill, or worse, through media that you don’t control. Help employees understand how the changes will (or won’t) affect them, and your plan for navigating the team forward through the change. In short, have a plan. Finally, consider the people on your team who will be most negatively impacted by any change. Get to them first with guidelines and support so, where possible, they become collaborators in the change rather than victims of it.
2. Information environment
Much of our information environment is comprised of profoundly negative messages, which are indented to engender fear, anxiety and a lack of trust in the systems and leaders that shape our world. If you’re looking for validation of this factor, consider the recent $787.5 million Fox News settlement in the defamation lawsuit with Dominion Voting Systems. Fox was accused of using its media platform to spread lies about Dominion using its products to flip votes, as well as bribing election officials, among other false claims.
Leader Tip: Recognize that the external information environment has shaped employee perspectives about information of all types, in some cases fueling skepticism or mistrust. As a leader, vetting the quality of the information you share is critical to retaining employees and their trust. Moreover, set standards for how you communicate internally, maintaining a commitment to honest and balanced messaging. Avoid casting teams or other colleagues into hero vs. villain roles.
Our capacity to engage in healthy, considerate dialogue is “broken” says Dr. Murthy: “We hesitate to bring up issues with other people that we may disagree on because we don’t know how they’ll react. We think twice before we post something because we’re not sure if we’re using the right words. And we’ve come to care less about people’s intentions somehow than about the words they use or about the position that they have.”
In short, we seem to have lost the capacity to talk through issues, so we tiptoe around them or avoid them out of fear. Consequently, our ability to understand and appreciate another’s point of view is compromised.
Leader Tip: Demonstrate courage when it comes to dialogue within the organization. You can’t work out problems if you can’t converse effectively. If your team is struggling to engage in healthy conversation on any issue, get support from an expert who can help you and the team. Create ground rules and a safe space for open communications, where employees feel welcomed to share their true opinions or concerns, without fear of retribution. Model in your own behaviors the act of inclusion, so others will follow your lead. Educate your team on the tools required for effective dialogue, including helping them learn (in a blameless way) about communication styles, influence tactics and unconscious bias.
4. Loneliness and isolation
Murthy’s concern about the impact of loneliness is grounded in multiple studies that show that more than half of Americans are lonely. The epidemic is especially prevalent among our youth, where the impact of isolation is fueling depression among young people and triggering an alarming increase in teen suicide. In the workplace, employee loneliness leads to a lack of belonging, which in turn reduces productivity, creativity, engagement and retention. As human beings we have nervous systems built for social connection, so living with chronic loneliness is counter to how our bodies are designed to function.
Leader Tip: Don’t assume that physical presence is an antidote to workplace loneliness. Insisting that employees abort remote work arrangements and return to the office may solve the isolation dilemma for some, but addressing loneliness requires a more intentional approach. As a leader, you play a significant role in eradicating loneliness on your team and within your culture. Begin with the following steps:
- Spend 15 minutes each day connecting with someone on your team that you don’t interact with daily. Make it a call to inquire about their wellbeing. While you can offer insights and guidance about any work projects they are assigned, strive to make this call more social and inclusive, especially if they are working remotely or at a different office location.
- Give people your full attention. There’s nothing worse than trying to engage in dialogue with someone who is preoccupied with their phone or computer, or otherwise distracted. It sends a message to your team when you do this. The message is, “You don’t matter as much as whatever else I’m giving my attention to.”
- Find opportunities for the team to engage in service projects in your local community. Working together on initiatives that improve the lives of others fosters positive emotions and creates the comradery of a shared experience among your team. It helps build workplace community and a sense of belonging.
- Embrace solitude and support your team in doing the same. While it may seem counterintuitive to eradicating loneliness, creating time to disconnect from devices and external noise, helps you reconnect with yourself. Build time into the team’s calendar for “meeting-free zones” in the week. Respect your employees’ personal time by avoiding emails, calls and other demands when they are on vacation or enjoying evenings and weekends with loved ones. Structure a time in the year for a team retreat that allows everyone to recharge personally, as well as rebuild community with one another.
The job of a leader has become increasingly complex, with considerations that extend beyond quarterly earnings and stock valuations. Never have so many human factor issues been center to the success of a business, challenging leaders to develop greater understanding of each member of the team. Companies that will thrive into the future have leaders who embrace this challenge.
Are you the leader your organization needs now?
Alaina Love is CEO of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results. She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and leadership expert with Fortune 500 clients. Follow Love on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or read her blog.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.