Loneliness at Work

Loneliness at Work

Is loneliness at work an issue?

I am writing this on a cold wet Friday in October. It is the end of another busy week. Many workers will have gone for a drink with colleagues or friends on the way home. Many will look forward to meeting colleagues on Monday morning, however some will not. This is not because they are not getting on with their fellow workers but because they feel lonely at work.

This is a topic that has been under the radar for workplace wellness. One reason for this is that a solution is not obvious for this problem. Another is that employers may feel that the worker sitting alone in the corner is more productive than everyone else.

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But what is the evidence for this? are they more productive? Is there a risk from loneliness In 2014 a Relate report suggested that 42% of people do not have a close friend at work. In  2011 study from the United States the authors concluded that loneliness had a significant influence on work performance. Other authors have suggested that people who are lonely at work are less motivated and deliver less discretionary effort.

pexels-photo-27967 Loneliness at Work

So why might people feel more lonely these days?. George Monbiots writes in the Guardian on this subject. He considers a number of factors which may be contributing to the “age of loneliness”. He comments that social isolation is as important a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and twice as deadly as obesity. He refers to “a life denying ideology” which “enforces and celebrates our social isolation”. In his most recent article he attributes at least some of the blame to the fact that “everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism”.

Some of the blame must also be apportioned to the ubiquitous presence of connected technologies, ie the mobile phone and social media applications. Somewhat inadvertently one feels these devices which are designed to connect us at any and at all times have actually had the opposite effect. They may have resulted in “intensified social comparison” to the point at which according to Monbiot “ having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves”. The use of these devices and in particular the constant attachment to social media ends up bringing us together in a virtual way yet driving us physically and socially apart, allowing us in his words “precisely to quantify our social standing, and to see that other people have more friends and followers than we do.”

pexels-photo-57825 Loneliness at Work

Why should we care about this. Physiologically it is established by experiment that In humans social contact alleviates pain. This is why we get together to support the bereaved. It is also why one of the most powerful punishments is solitary confinement. What can employers do? Is this a role for employee assistance programs? Do employers need to actively create more supportive cultures in order to counter the effects of loneliness? Might this be considered an invasion of privacy? No one likes the thought of “compulsory fun” and in fact this may have the opposite effect for introverted personalities.Or are we asking too much of employers to get involved in this at all?

EHA Consulting
Dr John Gallagher

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