Most research on loneliness is focussed on people’s private lives and groups that might be prone to it, like the elderly. Some recent studies, however, have looked at loneliness in the workplace and found that it not only hurts individuals, but organisations as a whole.
Sigal Barsade, is a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania and she says loneliness is a perception of isolation or estrangement from others; “It arises from the critical human need to belong.”
Loneliness is different from solitude, which can be a positive state, nor is it synonymous with depression, although the two may be correlated. Sarah Wright, a senior lecturer in organisational leadership, at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, says: “With loneliness, there is a need to rid oneself of distress, by integrating into new relationships. With depression, there is a drive to surrender to it.”
Being part of the human condition, loneliness is often seen as a personal problem, but, according to research by Professor Barsade and Hakan Ozcelik, managers may need to view it as an organisational issue as well.
They studied 650 workers and found that loneliness reduces an employee’s productivity in both individual and team-oriented tasks. Dr Wright says: “Loneliness tends to distort social cognition and influences an individual’s interpersonal behaviour, resulting in increased hostility, negativity, depressed mood, increased anxiety, lack of perceived control and decreased cooperativeness.” Exactly what you are not looking for in an employee.
Professor Barsade is looking at whether loneliness might be contagious in the workplace, in the way she has found emotions like anger and happiness to be. She says those trying to combat loneliness, should remember; “It is actually about the quality and not the quantity of relationships”. Just one close relationship with a colleague can make all the difference.
Nancy Molitor, a public education coordinator for the American Psychological Association, says the recent economic downturn may have been a factor in heightening feelings of workplace loneliness. Even among people who have kept their jobs, office redundancies may mean a loss of contact with someone “who wasn’t just a co-worker, but a friend”.
Dr Ozcelik says: “To fight loneliness, employers don’t necessarily want to organise more parties. Being lonely in the middle of a crowd can be exhausting. Creating more distractions won’t help those people.”
Helping a colleague, or yourself, out of loneliness, may involve simple steps, like taking time for a chat, a coffee, or lunch. Managers shouldn’t resent coffee or cigarette breaks; staff bonding can help people to work harder.
Loneliness can be built into the fabric of an organisation and an atmosphere of distrust, suspicion and fear can cause workers to feel estranged from one another and even without those elements, the way that work is structured can inhibit or enhance a sense of community.
Professor Barsade says: ”Managers need to be thoughtful about making sure that their teams and team members are interpersonally engaged and connected to each other. We know that’s a mechanism through which good work gets done.”
So if you notice a colleague of yours seems unusually islolated, force them down the pub or outside for a cigarette.