Are You Feeling Lonely At Work?

Claire Vane
February 8, 2018

Various things have occurred in the last couple of weeks that have set me thinking about feeling alone or lonely at work.

First, the Government appointed a minister for loneliness; we may think that loneliness is a problem for the elderly, but it affects millions of people irrespective of age. It affects new graduates coming into the workplace, and those coming up to what would have been a statutory retirement age. It affects all of us at different stages in our life, partly because of what is going on in terms of uncertainty in the workplace but partly as a result of trauma and challenges at home. Second, I started reading one of my Christmas presents: ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman.

A growing problem in the workplace

The issues that affect us at home, we carry to work. They transmit subliminally and are displaced into unconscious behaviours which our colleagues notice. Loneliness is becoming an increasing issue and this, in the context of mental health, is likely to take a prominent place on the work stage.

It is useful to look at the dictionary definition of loneliness. Most of the definitions say things like “sadness because one has no friends or company, feelings of depression and loneliness, isolation, the quality of being unfrequented and remote, deserted, abandoned.”

We have only to conduct a few exit interviews to realise that being valued is the single most important retention factor, and the feeling of loneliness means there appears to be no-one around who can reinforce our value.

It is also worth considering loneliness in the context of different generations and their motivating factors. A Google search will show up many tables displaying the differences between generations and I attach here, one such table.

A question of age?

There is a certain irony in the fact that one of the protected characteristics in the Equality Act of 2010 is that of age, and quite right too. However, it is interesting to remember that the society into which we are born, grow up and are educated affects our motivational factors - both socially, ethically, politically and economically. Each generation is affected by its influences and these influences affect what motivates us. So, although we should not discriminate on grounds of age, we should nonetheless be conscious of the era into which somebody has been born, educated and grown up. Often, though not always, in organisations one generation is managing another, and assumes that the values of the one are the same as the next.

Those of us who have children will have seen teenagers sitting in a room not speaking to each other, communicating, nonetheless through technology. The speed of communication, while allowing flexibility in the workplace, brings with it a certain amount of pressure and an expectation around speed of gratification. The internet has had a profound effect on our society as we all know. Lack of response - vindication and fortification, provided by the internet, can highlight the feeling of being alone and of not being not part of a group. Technology has brought thousands of advantages, not least flexible working, but one downside of flexible working, and reliance on the internet, can be loneliness.

Loneliness for leaders

Perhaps we need to raise the challenge of loneliness in the context of being a leader. If you have a well-being policy, then it is worth highlighting ‘loneliness’ as a state of mind that can bring health risks, and to consider whether socialisation, as opposed to socialising, is physically encouraged in the workplace, even if it is only eating lunch together.

Although this may seem not related to feeling alone, it is very important that individuals have clear tramlines within which to operate, clear job specifications and clear objectives. This structure gives an individual some feeling of value as they understand how they are being measured both quantitatively and qualitatively. Without these aids it is harder to convey a feeling of being valued.

Depending on our psychological profile, we have differing needs for time alone. There is sometimes a fine line between having some ‘space’ and feeling isolated.

Clearly the whole issue of loneliness in the workplace can be part of a wider debate on diversity and wellbeing. Some organisations are very alive to the challenges, and those organisations who are growing very fast and who do not have their own HR department may find that this item slips between the cracks.

If you’d like to discuss setting up an appropriate wellbeing policy or programme, and join in the debate around diversity, please do get in touch.

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