Loneliness in the workplace: A new health epidemic

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Loneliness in the workplace: A new health epidemic



Stress, lack of sleep, bullying and gruelling schedules, there are lots of ways that your working life can affect your health. But there is one workplace health issue that is frequently overlooked, loneliness.

Loneliness is described as a “sadness because one has no friends or company”. But in reality, it is a much broader term that refers to feelings of isolation from a group or workforce.

It’s very easy to trivialise loneliness, especially because it is a workplace issue that can not physically be seen or calculated. But research has shown that it is fast becoming a pressing issue for workers today.

The health risks

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review by former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy cites loneliness at work as a growing health epidemic.

According to the article, loneliness can translate to a reduced lifespan equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, an even greater threat than obesity.

In 2015, researchers from Brigham Young University looked at multiple studies on loneliness and isolation. Their results from several hundred thousand people showed that social isolation resulted in a 50% increase in premature death.

Loneliness is also associated with increased blood pressure, higher cholesterol levels, depression and Alzheimer’s disease.

Why now?

Despite the hyperconnected world we live in, it’s estimated that about 400,000 people in Ireland suffer from loneliness. That figure is steadily rising which raises the question, why has this become an issue now?

Since the beginning of time, humans have evolved to work in groups. Hunter-gatherers worked together in the Stone Age and factory workers relied on each other in the Industrial Age. Even in the 1980s and 1990s, staff lunches and after work drinks were considered a staple of every office.

However, in today’s modern workforce offices are quickly becoming an antiquated notion. As more employees work remotely, the way we communicate with our teams and colleagues is rapidly changing.

Morning catch-ups at the coffee machine are turning into brief Slack messages and close working friendships are being traded for social media connections and followers.

It seems like the technology that promises to bring us together is actually the very thing that is driving us apart.

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Why should companies care?

Loneliness is costing employers money, it is as simple as that.

Employees with close or supportive friendships at work are more likely to feel connected to their jobs according to research conducted by California State University.

The 2012 report found that loneliness at work “triggers emotional withdrawal,” which affects not only the individual but coworkers as well.

Furthermore, loneliness has a significant effect on workers’ output. Employees that do not have close friends in their office are less likely to complete their work to a high standard. They are also more likely to leave.

What can workers do?

If you’re suffering from loneliness at work here are a few things that you can do to help improve the situation.

Make a move

Change starts with one simple step. If your workplace is deathly quiet try saying a simple “Good morning” to your colleagues. Strike up a conversation at lunch or ask someone on your team about their weekend plans. It might seem unnatural and cringey to begin with but these little habits will help to create a new and more friendly culture in the long term.

Sign up

Does your company have a weekly yoga class or a tag rugby team? Find something that interests you and let your teammates know that you will be participating. Nothing will bond you together like a sweaty rugby match against a rival company. Plus you will have something to talk about the next morning.

Ditch the tech

It’s very tempting to stay in your cubicle all day avoiding other human interaction, trust me I’ve been there. But avoiding contact with your colleagues is only going to make matters worse. Instead of sending your coworker an email why not pop into their office for a quick chat. If you have a phone call with someone in the building offer to take them for a coffee instead. These face-to-face interactions are the best way to curb loneliness.

Know when to call it quits

Sometimes your workplace loneliness is a sign of a much bigger cultural problem within your organisation. If everyone is miserable and no one is talking to each other that is a pretty bad sign. If your workplace is making you unhappy then it might be time to start looking for a new job.

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