In Today’s ‘Age of Loneliness’, This Is Why Work Matters
You have 1,200 Facebook friends but haven’t talked to more than five of those people in the past week. Your mom is one of the only people on your Favorites list in your phone. You can name the people you have a meaningful relationship with on one hand.
There’s a paradox that would be amusing if it weren’t so starkly true: Though numerous people in America would say they’re lonely, they’re certainly not alone in that feeling. Despite the fact that we can have thousands of friends on Facebook and armfuls of followers on Twitter, we’ve entered what many social commentators have dubbed the “age of loneliness.”
Sure, we could shrug it off and go grab a beer with the one or two people we still believe we’ve got a solid connection with. But the reality is this loneliness is a lot more pernicious than it might seem at first. Everyday Health suggests chronic loneliness should be treated as a chronic illness, and can be just as dangerous as obesity. When left unaddressed, studies have shown that loneliness can increase the risk of early death by 45% and give you a greater chance of developing dementia. Both social isolation and living alone can have these effects, a recent study from Brigham Young University found.
One quick tip: get off Facebook — or at least stop passively stalking your cousin’s sister’s best friend. We’ve written before about how using social media can become quicksand that leads to depression or loneliness, and scientist’s haven’t changed their minds about that conclusion. “If two women each talk to their friends the same amount of time, but one of them spends more time reading about friends on Facebook as well, the one reading tends to grow slightly more depressed,” said Moira Burke, who has run a study of 1,200 Facebook users to monitor their social reactions over time.
There is one place where, if you make a concentrated effort, you’re likely to start digging yourself out of some of those melancholy tendencies. “Since most of us spend the majority of our time at work, let’s start the fight against loneliness there,” said Tim Leberecht, a writer for Harvard Business Review and author of The Business Romantic: Give Everything, Quantify Nothing, and Create Something Greater Than Yourself. The beginning stages of loneliness might actually serve as a biological warning system, acting as a motivator to reconnect with people around you. When you’re feeling lonely, it might be a good idea to put some extra effort into combatting that.
We spend at least eight hours per day interacting with coworkers — or choosing not to. Leberecht knows you might not become drinking buddies with the guy in the cubicle next to you, but you might at least feel a little less isolated during the time you’re at work, which would lead to better health effects overall. Here’s why those work relationships matter, and what you can do about it.
1. It helps you do your job well
That time at the water cooler and over your lunch break isn’t wasted, especially if you’re making meaningful connections with your coworkers. Studies have shown that human connections can help us feel more fulfilled in our work. What’s more, a study by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and California Sacramento University found in a study of more than 670 employees that loneliness directly affects work performance.
“While loneliness may be thought of as a private emotion, we find here that … employee work loneliness is also a social phenomenon, observable by an employee’s coworkers, and having a significant influence on employee work performance, both in direct tasks, as well as employee team member and team role effectiveness rated by both the employee’s work unit members and supervisor,” the authors conclude.
2. You can make yourself valuable to others
Licensed clinical social worker Karen Mason Riss told Forbes that one of the ways you can combat loneliness is to fill a hole in someone else’s life. “When you get past yourself and get connected to someone else, you stop thinking about you and how you feel and start thinking about someone else’s hole. Then you aren’t lonely anymore,” she said.
This is true in social situations with old friends or roommates, but it has an added benefit at work. When you offer to fill in the gaps on a project or a job for someone, in order to get to know them better, you also start to make yourself a more valuable member of the office. By taking this approach at work, you’ll start to feel more connected but also have the added benefit of being depended upon — a valuable thing in any job if you’re looking for security, or a good reference for later on in your career.
3. You might have great networking opportunities
Good networking isn’t just about having the biggest collection of business cards in your desk. It’s also about getting to know someone well enough that you know how they might be able to help you down the road, and vice versa. In his column about combatting loneliness through the workplace, Leberecht talks about hosting dinner parties for business colleagues and giving them a more relaxed, intimate setting to get to know each other well.
The same can be true for team lunches or other gatherings, he said. By having a theme to the lunch, you can get people talking and allow them to know each other better. “Make the practice more regular, invite colleagues from outside your group or division and pick a specific topic for discussion,” he advises.
4. You could get some exercise out of the deal
Do you know your work relationships are subpar but don’t want to take over someone’s lunch break by asking about their life? Try a walking meeting instead. Leberecht cites research suggesting walking at an 1.8 mph pace, outside the confines of gray walls and fluorescent lighting, will not only be better for work outcomes but will also begin a camaraderie with coworkers more easily. “When you get out of the office and get some exercise with a colleagues, you’ll immediately feel closer to them, particularly if the walk is one-on-one. You’ll also be more productive and innovative together,” he writes. Plus, it can only help your Fitbit goals for the day.
Follow Nikelle on Twitter @Nikelle_CS