Exhaustion and Stress: What’s Loneliness Got To Do With Either?

More and more people feel tired and lonely at work. In fact, a strong correlation has been found between loneliness and exhaustion, as well as other health issues, even seemingly unrelated issues. For example, Seppala and King found that burnout often results from loneliness (Burnout at Work Isn’t Just About Exhaustion. It’s Also About Loneliness).

In the fall of 2017, Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy published an excellent article on loneliness. Dr. Vivek Murthy was the U.S. Surgeon General from 2014 – 2017. We briefly mentioned his article in a previous blog and are providing a bit more detail here. Actually, we recommend reading the entire article and are happy to send you a link or PDF.

The health consequences of loneliness and consequences to the organization are substantial. People are social creatures and our survival relies on this – in the past socializing, trusting, and cooperating kept us safe from prey and helped us find food. Though the threat from prey is different, the need for social support hasn’t changed, Studies indicate that people live longer, recover quicker from illness, and are happier when they report strong social connections. However there are many issues today that increase the risk for loneliness, and for many work often interferes with social connections.

This is a more significant concern since most adults spend more waking hours at work than at home. And it’s an even greater issue since few employees have strong social ties at work. Plus relationships aren’t encouraged in many workplaces – and are often actually discouraged in some. We know of a client that separated a small, open-space department by adding cubicle walls between the four desks. The consequences were immediate – low morale, decreased engagement and performance, and all made plans to leave the company. Not that having an open space solves all the issue if everyone is glued to their computers, and interactions aren’t encouraged. But the purposeful separation was quite harmful.

Loneliness should not be confused with being alone, being an introvert, or wanting some ‘personal space’. In fact, loneliness is often experienced when with others. Wikipedia defines loneliness as a complex and usually unpleasant emotional response to isolation. As mentioned, the isolation and lack of social connections are due to many causes, one of which is today’s working environment.

Loneliness is detrimental to individual well-being as well as to the business. Loneliness causes dis-stress. Distress releases cortisol, and increases inflammation in the body leading to heart disease, diabetes, joint disease, depression, obesity, and premature death. Chronic stress negatively influences judgment, decision making, and emotional regulation.

The implications for business are just as profound. In their book, Wellbeing, the five essential elements, Rath and Harter discuss the implication of low social well-being. According to the authors, just 30% of employees have a best friend at work and the 30% are seven times as likely to be engaged in their jobs, are better at engaging customers, produce higher quality work, have higher well-being, and are less likely to get injured on the job. In sharp contrast, those without a best friend in the workplace have just a 1 in 12 chance of being engaged. The lack of engagement leads to higher attrition, low performance and decreased productivity.

So what to do? Below is a list of considerations, several of which are based on Dr. Murthy’s advice,

  • Evaluate the current state of social well-being and psychological safety in your workplace. Ask these questions: Do employees feel that their managers and colleagues genuinely value and care about them? Do they believe their organization has a culture that supports them? Would they characterize their relationships with managers as being driven more by fear or by respect, trust, and camaraderie?
  • Consider manager understanding of the dimensions of well-being, including social well-being, and how the dimensions align with team performance and impact the organization. Ask, do managers practice well-being and expect employees to maintain their own high-level of well-being?
  • Build understanding of high-quality relationships. Strong socialconnections are characterized by meaningful shared experiences and mutually beneficial two-way relationships, where the individuals give and receive. High-quality relationships must be grounded in care and concern, and informed by kindness, compassion, empathy and generosity. Dr. Murthy notes that there is a tendency to look at such positive emotions as “soft” and a liability for good judgment and decision-making.

Actually, anger, stress, jealousy, stinginess, and frustration are the emotions that distort
judgment, detract from performance and productivity, and impair decision-making; while
research increasingly shows that positive emotions enhance performance and resilience.

  • Assess the level of incivility within the organization and work groups. These greatly detract from well-being and social connections. Be clear with employees and managers about the types of interactions expected within the organization and what types of behaviors, like generosity, foster the expectations. Also be clear regarding the consequence for uncivil and negative behaviors.
  • Assess the level of trust at your organization. Ask yourself if the current culture and policies in your organization support the development of trusted relationships.
  • Make strengthening social connections a strategic priority in your organization. Murthy stated that designing and modeling a culture that supports connection is more important than any single program.
  • Cultivate leadership qualities that you want demonstrated. The qualities should foster positive relationships and value employees, plus such qualities build trust, respect, and learning. Leaders must set a powerful example.
  • Encourage coworker citizenship behavior. Inspire them to help each other — and accept help when it is offered – going above and beyond job requirements or worry about their own performance evaluations.
  • Promote authentic personal social connections acknowledging that employees have full lives – with passions outside of work, concerned citizens and community members.

This article indicates the strong interconnection with physical health and with the organization. Please contact us for a copy of the article and we’re happy to send it to you.


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