How to Lessen Loneliness and Boost Belonging at Work
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People are lonelier than ever before. In fact, 61 percent of American adults report they are lonely and among Generation Z workers aged 18 to 22, 73 percent report sometimes or always feeling alone. Additionally, since stay-at-home orders began, 75 percent of people say they feel more socially isolated.
Loneliness is not only negatively impacting people’s health but also employee engagement, productivity and loyalty as I highlighted in my recent article, Why Most Employees Are Lonely and Underperforming. Work is a major source of loneliness. Remote working, switching to a new team, eating lunch while answering emails or having no one to talk to on an "off" day can all contribute to people feeling lonely.
When workers feel lonely, they are less committed and less approachable, which makes it less likely that others will reach out to help, which compounds the problem. The opportunity to lessen loneliness and boost belonging lies in the hands of organization leaders.
Why leaders are best suited to extinguish loneliness
Perhaps the two things people want most in life are meaningful relationships and meaningful work. Organizational leaders play a unique role in that they can deliver both of those items.
For tackling loneliness, work is very fertile ground for creating connections among people.
- After sleep, work is the activity humans spend the most time engaged with.
- People are more lonely when they don’t have good relationships with their coworkers
- People are less lonely when they have just one work friend whom they feel connected to, understood by and can share ups and downs with.
- People have high trust in their employers (more than media and other institutions)
- Leaders and their commitment to employee’s success is the most significant driver of employee happiness at work
- 86 percent of people say it’s important that a company’s culture supports mental health
The growing concern of mental health and loneliness presents an opportunity for organizations and leaders to improve the well-being and health of its employees and thus boost belonging, engagement and performance. Here are seven ways to do it.
1. Prioritize meals
Employees who say they have colleagues they like eating lunch with are less lonely. When people choose to eat a meal together, their body receives signals to calm down, because human biology knows we would have never eaten a meal with a person from a threatening tribe. Meals lower our guard and open us up for deep connection.
For example, the personal grooming company Dollar Shave Club utilizes an algorithm within its communication platform, Slack, to pair a person with someone they don’t know to share lunch together. The company even pays the bill for these so-called “Power Lunches."
2. Socialize smarter
Create connections beyond traditional socializing. Although socializing outside of work (happy hours, company parties, etc.) can reduce loneliness, group conversations tend to stay shallow, and people tend to talk about what they have in common, which is work. One-on-one conversation or doing an activity together is more likely to create deeper connections.
For example, some UK companies have created connection spaces, such as a “Chatty Table or Friendly Bench,” where the expectation is for people to connect when present in those spaces. Other organizations have created micro-communities where people connect based on similar interests, such as running before work or salsa dancing. Recently, my company helped The Home Depot create an onboarding scavenger hunt where new hires were not only oriented to the work and workspace but also to the people inside the organization.
3. Prompt personal sharing
When people feel they do not need to hide their true selves at work, they are less lonely.
One of the primary hallmarks of a high-performing team is psychological safety, the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake. Create opportunities for individuals to share aspects of their personal lives with the goal of seeing the human behind the job. Ways to prompt personal sharing might be to have a bring your kids or parents to work day, provide a virtual tour of your home office or carve out five minutes each meeting to have someone share a personal anecdote.
For example, Vivek Murthy, the former U.S. Surgeon General, created the “Inside Scoop” exercise where his team devoted five minutes once a week during their all-hands meeting for one person to share pictures of anything they wanted as long as it wasn’t related to their current job. One researcher on Murthy’s team was perceived as very detailed oriented and “nerdy” by her colleagues, but that changed once they saw the pictures of her marathon training and heard about how she qualified for the U.S. Olympic team. She saw herself as an athlete, not just a researcher, and now her colleagues saw that too.
4. Promote work-life balance
Employees are less lonely among employers that promote good work-life balance and when they can “leave work at work.”
Work-life balance should be pursued and consistently reevaluated by any organization. Enabling telecommuting, prioritizing volunteering, supporting vacation, offering childcare and extending parental leave are all examples of how organizations can help employees strike better work-life balance.
For example, Facebook and IKEA recently began offering new parents (mothers and fathers) four months of paid parental leave. And JPMorgan Chase made headlines in 2016 for telling its employees they shouldn't work on weekends as a way to improve their work-life balance.
5. Create a communication agreement
When employees feel that technology helps them make meaningful connections with coworkers and when technology is not perceived as a replacement for in-person interactions, employees are less lonely.
Ubiquitous connectivity has eroded many boundaries we once had between work and life. Communication can be impersonal and incessant if appropriate boundaries aren’t established.
Establish a communication agreement among the team that enables more meaningful connections and ensures every person is heard. Items a communication agreement can highlight are response time expectations, how face-to-face interactions are to be prioritized, preferred communication channels, appropriate technology for the type of information, “do not disturb” timeframes (vacation, evenings, deep work, etc.), channels for urgent communications only, participation expectations during meetings, etc.
6. Build rapport
Leaders should model what effective rapport-building looks and feels like. Here’s how to build a rapid, high-quality connection.
- Look for uncommon commonalities. Similarities that you share that are rare.
- Ask open-ended questions. Display real curiosity for the other person. (Don’t put them on the spot or cross any lines.)
- What is the most meaningful thing that happened to you this week?
- What are you reading, watching or making that is bringing you joy?
- Self-disclosure. Share something about yourself.
Consider creating environments where two people can explore the above with each other. At times, a formal exercise can give the necessary permission to ask deeper questions of a group or team and the mutuality is built in.
7. Help them help others
Helping others helps people feel less lonely. Adam Grant, organizational psychologist and New York Times bestselling author, recently shared on his podcast that he was feeling alone one month, so he began sending emails to people telling them why he appreciated them. As a result, he felt less lonely.
Additionally, relationships don’t have to be lasting to be meaningful. A brief 40-second positive interaction has a significant impact on both people and can alleviate loneliness as long as the moment leaves an individual feeling seen. For example, offering a pen to someone who might be trying to fill out a form can make someone feel seen and less stressed.
Leaders should encourage their team to proactively look for ways to help someone else. As demonstrated by Grant, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to move from lonely to connected.