Why Work Loneliness Isn't a Personal Problem (And How to Conquer It)
Where do you fall on the spectrum of working alone, together? Work is a social thing. It's done with people, and at the very least, for people. At the same time, you are one person with a job to do. When those personal and social gears are out of alignment, when you're not connecting with the people you spend so many hours a day with, you get lonely.
Loneliness seems like such an intensely personal, private problem, but it's much more than that. At work, loneliness is yet another effect of the inadequate attention paid to the human side of getting stuff done together. Whether it's the inertia of interacting with the same people every day in a way that's unique from all your other relationships, there's a prevailing sense that work is this realm where you just deal-that it's not something you can improve.
While we understand the prioritization of personal friends and loved ones, we often miss out on meaningful interaction with the person down the hall, focusing on growing our supposed ""professional network"" more than we look next to us to grow higher quality connections. That kind of thinking is unhealthy, unhelpful, and unproductive. The quality of your social connections impact your physical and emotional well-being, and so impact the physical and emotional well-being of the people who run a business. Cultivating higher quality relationships with your co-workers requires a 360-degree approach, taking responsibility for how you interact with others and how you treat yourself.
The Cheese Who Stands Alone Gets Less Done
When you start feeling isolated at work, you also get demoralized and detached-perhaps even depressed. In the first study to empirically analyze the effect of loneliness on work performance, Sigal Barsade and Hakan Ozcelik examined the experiences of 672 employees in 143 teams. They found that loneliness led to withdrawal from work, and weaker productivity, motivation, and performance. The study also showed that this doesn't happen in a vacuum, that "co-workers can recognize this loneliness and see it hindering team member effectiveness."" Loneliness is a personal emotion, but it's not a private concern. The effect of loneliness reverberates, becoming a concern for the group, the organization, and the community.
In The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer write about one of the vital ingredients of what makes us fulfilled in our work-the nourishment factor of human connection. Recognition, gratitude, encouragement, emotional support, and camaraderie are all elements of the nourishment factor-aspects of work that are often treated as mere window dressing, as spiritless exercises or tired, meaningless buzzwords, and as far as you can get from true priorities.
"Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity," French philosopher Simone Weil once wrote, and in what seems to be an ever-head-down, busily streaming life, that seems a harder truth than ever. Your wholehearted attention is how you connect to others, while our pragmatic attitudes about work have little room to even consider generosity. The nourishment factor-these acts of generosity, of giving and receiving our full attention, expressing gratitude and providing support-feeds our cores, makes us more resilient and enduring, and helps us to strive.
Start By Tuning Yourself
How you pay attention and act with generosity, though, starts with yourself. "Your brain is tied to your heart," explains Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina. The more you tune into others, "the healthier you become, and vice versa."
That heart-to-head connection exists thanks to your vagus nerve, which among many things, helps calm a stressed, scared, or anxious racing heart and attunes your ear to human voices. The strength of this friendly nerve is measured by vagal tone-the relationship between heart rate and breathing rate. The higher the tone, the better your physical and emotional health-from your cardiovascular system and glucose levels to superior regulation of emotion, cognitive flexibility, and social connection with others.
Through her research, Fredrickson found that vagal tone can be strengthened like a muscle. Study participants practiced a form of Buddhist meditation called metta, or loving-kindness, cultivating benevolent feelings of goodwill and compassion towards themselves and to others. The result was increased vagal tone, as well as increased positive emotions and social connectedness. Further research by Fredrickson and her colleagues uncovered how "people's perceptions of their positive social connections with others accounted for the causal link between positive emotions and improved vagal tone."
Taking the time to connect with and tune into yourself and others and boosting your perception of your social connections have resounding effects, improving a whole spectrum of health-physical, emotional, and social. And doing that, according to Fredrickson, creates a positive feedback loop, all starting from within.
Five Ways to Nourish Yourself and Your Team at Work
Learn how to tune into yourself and each other to be both particle and wave, to not feel so alone while working together. You are part of a team, and in turn, that team is greater than the sum of its parts, creating and resonating with a cohesive, buzzy energy. Here are some ways you can build more meaningful, nourishing connections as a member of your working world, as well as examples of how some companies are attaining that group resonance.
Start with Yourself, and Learn How to Share
If you're feeling continual isolation anywhere- work, home, or anywhere in between-your emotions are telling you to take another look at your circumstances. These poorer quality connections can be corrosive, eroding energy and ramping up stress, anxiety, and fear-feelings that we shouldn't merely tune out and, it turns out, that the vagus nerve helps to soothe. So be kind and attentive to yourself first. Often we put our heads down to get work done or to get through the day, and don't allow the chance to listen to ourselves.
Also, reach out and share with each other. The Buffer team does an amazing job of connecting every day through sharing not only their work accomplishments but also their self-improvement goals, from sticking with fitness regimes to learning to code. These points provide fodder for rich conversations and opportunities to show incredible support, helping to create a close, nourishing work life that permits people to be vulnerable yet supported and always aiming higher.
Meditate and Breathe Deeply
Implement some of the findings of Barbara Fredrickson's research by practicing loving-kindness meditation to jumpstart your loop of positive emotions, connections, and health. Trade in fifteen minutes of scrolling through your Facebook connections for fifteen minutes of your mind's connection. You can start out with some of these guided meditations.
Alternatively, take a few moments throughout the day to take some deep breaths. Deep diaphragmatic breathing-that's from the belly, not your chest-can stimulate the vagus nerve and allow you to take a step back in times of feeling solitary or unsupported. Even when a day is not markedly stressful, spending a lot of time in front of the computer, I find my breathing rather shallow and my shoulders beginning to hunch up by my ears. Moments of deep breathing are check-ins, a way I can get some air into cobwebby brainspace, relax my shoulders and back, and unfurl my attention to the people around me.
Show, Don't Tell, Your Attention
Being present, being available, and paying attention-even in a short interaction-can really only be demonstrated, not conjured up by saying that's what you're doing. Managers can't say that they care about their team members, and then never be around to listen to them.
As a distributed company, the team at Zapier is particularly alert to the dangers of loneliness and extremely mindful of how its members are connecting. They make sure to constantly and visibly reach out, go on team trips, create processes of daily feedback, and use connecting tools like Sqwiggle, which allows them to see each other over a continually refreshing image feed and chat with the click of a button.
Nourish Your Peers with Recognition and Gratitude
The way many companies handle employee recognition is broken and counterproductive, dismissing and disrespecting the hard work that people do everyday. Not only do most recognition approaches treat feedback like a formal event, administered by managers from on high, they also fail to acknowledge how that hard work often involves helping someone else.
One solution that innovative teams have implemented are crowdsourcing and peer recognition, from the good folks at EverTrue, who use the employee recognition platform Youearnedit.com in conjunction with iDoneThis to give each other rewards to the human relations-oriented employees at Shopify, who use an internal system to crowdsource bonuses. Those who deserve acknowledgment for their efforts and support are bubbled up and made visible, all by people who have actual knowledge and appreciation and want to say "thanks" to boot.
Take Time to Do Small Things
Even small gestures that are considerate and supportive can make a fortifying difference to cut through feelings of isolation. It's quality, not quantity, and small moments of true attention, support, encouragement, and fun can charge people up with a much-needed spark.
Take, for example, coworkers at SocialToaster who regularly connect with each other by making sure to eat together everyday at a "Hogwarts-style" table. Or look at the team at Wistia, who exude an attitude of openness and conviviality with each other that's reflected in the verve and care in their work. They have a ton of fun together, spending "extracurricular" time together outside work to play on a company softball league, change desks every few months to switch up desk neighbors, and share a bite at their own Hogwarts-style table.
These days, the most interesting companies are hacking their culture, and culture at its heart is about people and togetherness, despite being so often talked about as if it is about things. Dig deeper beneath the ping-pong games and the free food, and that's where you start to unearth what goes into building a culture of meaningful nourishment.
Janet Choi is the Chief Creative Officer at iDoneThis and keeps the wheels of the iDoneThis blog turning. She is not a morning person. Follow her tweets at@lethargarian.
Image via Nagy-Bagoly Arpad (Shutterstock).
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