Managers and owners have to cope with an epidemic of loneliness

It seems that the Covid epidemic is being followed by an epidemic of loneliness. Or rather, lockdowns and the subsequent popularity of working from home have exacerbated an existing trend towards isolation.

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky is quoted as suggesting that loneliness might kill more people than Covid-19.

The trend was noticed decades before Covid-19. Political scientist Robert Putnam tracked the decline of social capital in the United States from the 1950s in his book Bowling Alone. He suggested that we are losing opportunities for people to meet and make friends.

Many of us will remember childhoods when we were far freer to drop in on friends and family down the road on our own. Cities bring people together in increasing numbers but then drop us into walled enclaves in which we may not know the names of our neighbours.

According to the US Surgeon-General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community, the rate of loneliness among young adults has increased every year between 1976 and 2019.

This has consequences for physical health too. In a post entitled Health Risks of Social Isolation and Loneliness, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that social isolation increases the risk of dementia by 50%, heart disease by 29% and stroke by 32%. Those are startling numbers. The CDC estimates that loneliness costs the US economy an estimated $406 billion a year in addition to the estimated Medicare costs of $6.7 billion for isolated older people.

The Surgeon-General reports that “recent estimates, based on synthesizing data across 148 studies, with an average of 7.5 years of follow-up, suggest that social connection increases the odds of survival by 50%.”

Most of us whose staff disappeared into remote work when lockdowns struck took extensive steps to keep them engaged. We had online games and paired up buddies to call each other. Managers were exhorted to include chatting about non-work interests in their weekly conversations. Then the restrictions eased and we let those unusual steps lapse.

Yet people are lonely when physically at work too. Based on his own survey of 2000 global workers, Ryan Jenkins found that lonely workers are less likely to be engaged at work, more likely to miss work due to stress or illness, and more likely to think about leaving their employer. “Loneliness is an unaddressed productivity killer that is incapacitating many teams.”

This places an unexpected responsibility on the shoulders of managers. Loneliness affects productivity, and so should be a core concern.

What can owners and managers do about loneliness among their people now?

The US Surgeon-General’s report makes several recommendations for the workplace, including making social connection a priority for both management and employees, training managers to promote connection, creating a culture that encourages people to connect as people rather than just skilled resources, fostering inclusion and belonging, and implementing policies that protect workers’ boundaries and allow them to nurture relationships outside work.

We could even train people in friendship. Sheridan Voysey, the founder of the Friendship Lab in the UK, points out that 51% of us find making new friends difficult: “Busyness, job changes and so many other things get in the way.“ That’s a particular problem if you change jobs, cities, or countries and leave old networks behind. So he has created the Friendship Lab course to teach people how to make friends.

Those of us involved with small businesses may be so distracted by the multitude of daily pressures that we don’t notice those in our teams who are withdrawing or have no one to go home to. If you are unaware of this being a problem in your company, try implementing a survey asking members to report on it confidentially. It may surprise you.

Jonathan Cook, a counselling psychologist, chairs the African Management Institute. If you’d like to read previous columns in this series or ask Jonathan a question please visit http://www.africanmanagers.org/jonathan-cook

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