The findings from HBR is, well, breathtaking.  A publication dedicated to the art and science of business and leadership is seeing the direct connection to how disconnected we are in the workplace affecting the quality of our work, satisfaction of our job and tenure of our role, to name a few. 

“A hundred fifty years ago, poet Emily Dickinson described loneliness as “the horror not to be surveyed, but skirted in the dark.” Had she been running a modern company, she might have felt differently.

Loneliness should be as important to managers, CFOs, and CEOs as it is to therapists.

The last half-decade of research has demonstrated that loneliness threatens not only our physical health and well-being, but also our livelihood. Research shows that loneliness has the same effect as 15 cigarettes a day in terms of health care outcomes and health care costs. Yet we are often blind to this hidden drain on health and revenue.

Lonelier workers perform more poorly, quit more often, and feel less satisfied with their jobs — costing employers upwards of £2.5 billion ($3.5 billion U.S.) in the United Kingdom alone. The U.K. found loneliness to be such an issue, they have appointed a Minister of Loneliness to head up the daunting task of figuring out solutions to what the former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy calls “the most common pathology”, with nearly 40% of Americans reporting being lonely.

As employers digest the business impact of this epidemic, they’ve become hungry for a more granular understanding of who’s at risk for loneliness, and what they can do to help. Little such data exists, however, leaving them to take their best guess. Thus, we used the lab at BetterUp to collect data on loneliness in the workplace in search of some of the elusive knowledge that can inform an evidence-based corporate approach…

Profiles of Loneliness: Workers in our sample reported many of the same troubling side effects of loneliness that others have already observed. Lonelier workers reported lower job satisfaction, fewer promotions, more frequent job switching, and a higher likelihood of quitting their current job in the next six months. Feeling a lack of workplace social support was associated with similar negative business outcomes. The economic impact of loneliness is indeed staggering.

Our profile analyses covered a broad range of demographics and work-related variables, trying to spot groups of workers who are particularly at risk for feeling lonely. We used these factors to identify those groups of employees most in danger of becoming “the loneliest worker”…

Where you work matters

In a breakdown of loneliness and social support rates by profession, legal practice was the loneliest kind of work, followed by engineering and science. This is perhaps not surprising, given the known high prevalence of depression among lawyers. At the other end of the spectrum were occupations involving high degrees of social interaction: social work, marketing, and sales.

Respondents who worked in a for-profit industry reported feeling the least lonely and most supported out of all the employment sectors. Government employees were lonelier than for-profit and nonprofit workers, and reported slightly lower levels of social support on the job. This fact might help to explain recent findings on the lowered job satisfaction among federal employees.

Who you are outside of work matters, too

The biggest differentiators on the spectrum of loneliness showed up in specific demographic profiles. The more people you have around in your private life, we found, the better for keeping loneliness at bay. Conversely, respondents who reported being single, separated, or divorced reported higher levels of loneliness and lower social support than those currently in a relationship. (Singles were the loneliest of all.) Childless workers reported higher levels of loneliness than parents, and atheists and agnostics were lonelier than members of religious communities…

How managers and colleagues can help

Within large organizations, close colleagues and managers are best positioned to identify workers suffering from loneliness. The signs may be subtle — social withdrawal, diminished mood — so it’s useful to know the risk factors we’ve outlined here. These specific populations are at particular risk of isolation, dissatisfaction, and turnover.

If a co-worker seems to be suffering from loneliness, what can managers and colleagues do to support them?

Our study suggests that the single most impactful leadership behavior you can undertake to counteract loneliness is to create opportunities for building shared meaning with colleagues. Understand what makes their work meaningful to them, and then connect that to what makes it meaningful for you. On a collaborative project, frame the efforts in terms of their collective advancement of your company’s mission, rather than getting bogged down in individual deliverables as ends unto themselves. Use collective wins as an opportunity to celebrate the entire team. This reinforces social cohesion through a shared sense of accomplishment, and avoids leaving some left out in the cold.


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