We may live in a more connected world than ever, but in many ways it is also a lonelier one, too. And though isolation may feel like "an intensely personal, private problem," as Janet Choi notes in Lifehacker, the manifestation is both social and costly. She shares research published by Hakan Ozcelik and Sigal Barsade, documenting the link between loneliness and employee disengagement, as well as "weaker productivity, motivation, and performance."
At work, loneliness comes in many flavors.
- Mismanagement: It could be that the company doesn't pay enough attention to the importance of real connectedness. Observes Choi: "Work is a social thing....when you’re not connecting with the people you spend so many hours a day with, you get lonely."
- Lack of Diversity: Writing at DiversityJournal.com, Jennifer Thorpe-Moscon notes that "othered" employees don't get the same advancement opportunities as their peers. Potentially great contributors to the mission gradually become demoralized and don't bother. (Doug Maynard and Bernardo M. Ferdman add that they may never even engage in the first place.)
- Bullying: In a survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, "the 'silent treatment' to 'ice out' & separate from others" was #4 among the top 25 methods used to target victims, with 64% naming it explicitly. WBI researchfound the impact on employees from prolonged workplace bullying includes cardiovascular problems, inflammatory bowel disease, more frequent and more severe infections, auto-immune disorders, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and more.
Because loneliness is so common and so painful, we see it depicted in Hollywood quite a lot.
Enlightened (2011), for example, starred Laura Dern completely hysterical, and hysterically funny, as she rockets down the ladder of life. Like Alice in Wonderland, she can't believe how she is tumbling down the rabbit hole and in near-complete isolation.
Stripped of husband, home, job status (and social graces), she tunnels with her fingers through the dirt of hell. But in the end, Dern emerges very much whole. She still has nothing - she doesn't have the respect of corporate America - and she doesn't have her husband or her former life.
Yet she is not alone, nor is she lonely. Because she has found herself. And the connections she makes with other people, just like the causes she has dedicated herself to at work - they are really real, they matter to her, and they bind her to the world in a way that no expensive trinket can.
There is no need for a superficial pat on the back by her company. She isn't at the mercy of a husband too drug-addled to see.
I think about the invisible loneliness in young people.
It's easy to miss it: They seem so happy from the outside, bopping around with their friends in school, practically from the minute they walk into kindergarten. Not a minute is spent without someone texting someone, Whisper-ing something, Snapchatting that one, sending selfies here and there.
But inside, so many of them are lost. Cutting themselves just to see if the skin bleeds. And when they get to work, the money just doesn't cut it. As Time magazine noted nearly a decade ago:
"20-something workers...just want to spend their time in meaningful and useful ways, no matter where they are."Intelligence Group research from Rob Asghar at Forbes was very similar. Among millennials, "64% of them say it’s a priority for them to make the world a better place," and "88% prefer a collaborative work-culture rather than a competitive one."
These preferences both lend themselves to jobs where loneliness is minimized, because the nature of the work itself requires forging real, meaningful, trust-based connections with one's coworkers.
What about older people?
I read somewhere recently that people get happier after the midlife crisis, which generally happens in the '40s. The Guardian recently shared some academic research, focusing on the responsibilities of midlife, that bears this out: "Happiness is U-shaped."
But there is something else here beyond the practical, and Penelope Trunkcaptures it well. As we've seen, over and over, loneliness and a lack of meaning, purpose and connection in life tend go hand-in-hand.
"Our 50s are—for people in a wide range of cultures—a time of re-calibration, when they begin to evaluate their lives less in terms of social competition and more in terms of social connectedness. So all those people who are getting kicked out of the company for being too old are about to start feeling a lot happier.
Thus loneliness, at its core, is not about being cut off from other people, although that certainly doesn’t help.
It is about the need to find your purpose.
Once that happens, the more you are encouraged to be yourself — everywhere you go — the less likely you are to feel so alone.
It’s a formula, so amazing it’s hard to believe that this is true. But as your level of personal fulfillment increases, the less of a financial toll loneliness takes on your employer.
So it’s in everyone’s best interest when “you do you.”
Copyright 2015 Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. Dr. Blumenthal is founder and president of BrandSuccess, a corporate content provider, and co-founder of All Things Brand. The opinions expressed are her own and not those of any government agency or entity or the federal government as a whole. Cover photo by David Ingram via Flickr (Creative Commons). Enlightened screenshot via Amazon.com.