Loneliness is one of the least appreciated and most misunderstood problems that we come across in our workplaces. The mere mentioning of loneliness may bring up images of social outcasts, extreme introverts or people who just don’t have the tools or ability to connect with their colleagues. Still others feel uncomfortable bringing it up as it appears unimportant, or secondary in comparison with other issues such as bullying, disrespect and lack of appreciation. The opinion may be that we should just “suck it up.” It appears that our hyper, social media connectedness has only increased our loneliness. According to an AARP report, loneliness has doubled since 1980. The tools that are making us hyperconnected are driving us further from human interaction. Millennial author Dan Schawbel, in his upcoming book Back to Human, explores the need for making real connection in an age of increasing isolation. Loneliness is bad for your health and research has indicated that it may be a larger factor in our health than obesity, smoking, exercise or nutrition.
Not only is loneliness bad for our health but research has shown that lonely employees hurts the performance of an organization. A study by the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania discovered that loneliness decreases employee effectiveness and contribution to team effort. http://faculty.wharton.upenn.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Work_Loneliness_Performance_Study.pdf
Try Bonding Over Food
The love of food is universal and crosses all human boundaries. As demonstrated by CNN’s Parts Unknown, hosted by the late Anthony Bourdain, food can bridge all sorts of differences between people and form bonds. The opportunities to connect over food in the workplace are endless, only limited by our imagination. Pot lucks, where everyone brings something, are great for conversation. Bringing in food from our gardens to share or give away the excess is always well received. If kitchen facilities permit, encourage employees to prepare a special dish, or favorite ethnic food. Working together on preparing meals is an excellent way for people to connect.
Encourage and Give Space to People to Share Interests Outside of Work
Organizations have set up various groups such as toastmaster, book clubs and groups to incorporate all sorts of interest over their lunch breaks. Companies should encourage and support staff that want to set up groups, of any kind, if there is an interest. In good weather have groups go for a walk over lunch and or share a picnic in nature. Getting involved in activities of interest to staff offers them a chance to connect on a more personal level than just sharing work. Bring in an expert to share an activity such as yoga, watercolour painting or a local chef.
Have Time Out From Electronic Devices
During meetings, some organizations have had everyone put their electronic devices in a container (I like the fish bowl) at the meeting and pick them up at the end. This encourages more face to face interaction without the constant distraction caused by devices.
Taking Personal Time at Meetings
A good way to start meetings is to go around the room and ask everyone to share something that they are excited about. The only rule is that it must be something outside of work. This is an excellent way for people to get to know one another. For new staff it is a way for them to get to know their colleagues and vice versa. It sets up further conversation and connection as it gives employees something they can talk about and connect with after the meeting is over.
Contests That Require Direct Interaction and Teamwork
Fun contests can be set up that allow employees to get to know each other better and provide opportunities to work together to find solutions. The games and contests that involve learning something about people we work with are great for morale and forming an appreciation of and connection to the people that we work with. Seeing people in a different light from who they are during their work, breaks down barriers and helps build teamwork and appreciation of others.
Encourage Sharing of Expertise and Interests Outside of Work
People who had been on a trip, an adventure or did something interesting to were encouraged to put on presentations over lunch hour and invite everyone who was interested. There are brown bag forums where people are encouraged to share outside work expertise with colleagues while eating their lunch. As with contests, this allows the opportunity for staff to see the diverse range of interests and skills that people possess outside of the ones evident in their workplace.
Encourage Reaching Out to Colleagues When We Sense They are Struggling
When we notice a colleague that seems to be emotionally down and not their usual self, reach out and let them know that you noticed and ask if there is anything you can do to help. Some people fear that this is overstepping boundaries and it is none of their business or place to do so. However, most people will appreciate you noticing them, even if they do not want, or accept your level of help or a listening ear. Management can encourage this by actively reaching out to their staff when they become aware that someone may be struggling. Knowing that their managers and coworkers care about them as people, goes a long way towards decreasing workplace loneliness and isolation.