Now that we’re away from the daily social interactions we were previously used to at work, loneliness is more of a possibility.
Loneliness in the workplace can be a very difficult thing to deal with at the best of times, but during a pandemic that has forced so much of the workforce to restrict its movements and work from home, loneliness can become even more intense.
Just because we’ve been displaced from the traditional office environment, it doesn’t mean traditional workplace problems such as stress, burnout or loneliness disappear.
In fact, according to resilience coach Siobhán Murray, burnout can actually get worse under the current circumstances. And with so many of us now separated from our colleagues, loneliness can be magnified in the same way.
Loneliness arises for many reasons, from long working hours and highly competitive environments, to added external pressures and anxieties.
Even before Covid-19 restrictions came into place, loneliness in the workplace was becoming a major issue. In 2017, former US surgeon general Dr Vivek Murthy wrote in the Harvard Business Review that up to 40pc of adults reported feeling lonely at work, which can cause a variety of problems such as depression and anxiety.
‘Many people seek out other people to assuage anxiety, but that is harder now because of the lack of casual contact’
– PROF IAN ROBERTSON
If this was a problem before we all became separated from our colleagues, it’s easy to see how it can be more intense now. Trinity College Dublin’s Prof Ian Robertson is a neuroscientist and author of The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper. He spoke to Siliconrepublic.com about how loneliness can affect us during work.
“It could reduce our productivity because feeling lonely is like an unresolved problem and the brain is inclined to default to conflict signals that come from unresolved problems,” he said. “In that way, it acts like a multitask demand for the brain and so may reduce productivity and increase fatigue.”
While being separated from the daily social interactions we were previously used to can make us feel isolated, Robertson said the increased anxiety many people are likely feeling right now is making the feelings of loneliness even worse.
“Many people when they are anxious seek out other people to assuage the anxiety, but that is harder now because of the lack of casual contact and the need to programme Zoom or other calls,” he said.
“But probably the main external factor is the extreme individualism of many western societies and the fact that many young people do not feel ‘held in the minds’ of a group, whether that be family, friendship group or community.”
Not alone, but lonely
It’s an important and well-known differentiator that just because someone is alone, it doesn’t mean they’re lonely. However, this works both ways. So if you’re working from home in a house full of people or are having daily Zoom calls with friends, family or colleagues, you’re not immune from feeling lonely.
“Emotional loneliness can exist even when there are other people around,” Robertson said. “That is a complex emotion, which is as much about one’s relationship with oneself as with other people.”
For employees who are currently worried about feeling lonely, Robertson’s advice is to engineer purely social chats with people you like and to confide in people you trust. “Self-disclosure binds people to each other and self-disclosure begets self-disclosure.”
He also recommended exploring different types of mindfulness or meditation to see if you can find one that works for you.
Managers have a duty of care here too. The current crisis is affecting everyone in very different ways, but it’s important that all managers take the extra step of taking their employees into consideration. Robertson suggested making space for virtual coffee breaks where staff can meet, possibly without bosses present.
Siliconrepublic.com editor Elaine Burke has previously written about the dangers of managers passing their own stress onto their employees and, with this in mind, leading with compassion and empathy has never been more important.