A long, long time ago (like, before we even heard of an iPhone X) human life was lived in communities. We hunted together, cooked together, ate together and cosied down at night together, for warmth and protection (and maybe just because hugs are nice).
So the idea of community-as-life is coded right in to our humanity. It’s part of our innate human nature to have shared plans, projects and goals, which in turn create a sense of the collective, a shared mythology, and the blueprint for an ongoing community.
And yet – how do we work and live now?
We’re often matrixed in a number of (at least partly) virtual teams, so we’ll never meet some of our colleagues in person. Yes, we work in open plan offices, which were once thought to be the resolution to infrequent collaboration, siloed working and unproductive, ineffective teamwork. But most of us face a screen all day, work towards our own goals, keep our headphones on so we don’t get distracted, and generally jump right into our own little silo every morning and stay there. We’re also fast reaching what was once considered the future-state – by 2020, it’s possible that up to 75% of workers will be remote in some organisations. It’s no wonder then, that in today’s world, feeling lonely is becoming a pervasive, negative trend.
And the consequences of feeling lonely go way further than just feeling a little out of place at work. There are massive implications for healthcare, too. A recent study shows that 77% of adults who describe themselves as ‘not lonely’ also say they are in excellent health, whereas less than a quarter of lonely people can say the same. Amongst other things, lonely people more often struggle with obesity, long-term chronic pain, depression and drug or alcohol abuse. And, according to the Campaign to End Loneliness, “loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26%”.
“Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.” – Harvard Business Review, Work and the Loneliness Epidemic
So how exactly do we forge that shared mythology, the sense that there’s a bigger communal purpose guiding our actions, if we’re more apt to like each other’s witty tweets than have a real conversation over a coffee? How do we reach out and make sure that our communities are safe, kind, healthy spaces for us all to share?
Well, here’s the thing. We can’t turn to the big institutions in society – schools, workplaces, governmental bodies – to fill this yawning gap in our communities. Rediscovering our humanity has got to come from the ground up; each one of us should feel obligated to commit those small acts of kindness that will, ultimately, turn into a tidal wave that will wash away what is almost ubiquitous loneliness.
The recent AARP study gives a neat little illustration of the power of communities.
Now, we’re not suggesting that if only we all got outdoors a little more, all of our loneliness problems would be solved – we have no idea what those people who feel lonely are contending with behind closed doors.
But, the statistics do show that the broader our social networks, the less lonely we’re likely to feel. If we are in contact with acquaintances, friends, and family on a regular basis, that’s a bulwark against feeling alone. If we become a part of what’s going on around us – community gardens, local school fundraisers, or even just a longstanding Friday night drink with a group of friends – that will keep us connected to others. And if you can turn that into lending your time or expertise to non-profits, local charities or other organisations crying out for support, then so much the better.
Social good that does you good? There’s no losers there.
Let’s draw our focus in a little and think about negating loneliness in the workplace. After all, you spend (possibly) a little more time than you’d like with colleagues, right? Those 40 hours every week should count for more than a punched clock and a salary. Work-based relationships can lift you up, enhance one of the main facets of your life, and allow you to feed into a collective purpose – all of which will kick feelings of loneliness off into the long grass.
So what’s to be done to head off loneliness in you or in your colleagues? Here’s a couple of ideas to get you started.
Treat your work like the community that it is
We’re not saying work should be your life, rather that a lot of your life takes place at work. So why skim across the surface, only staying engaged at surface level? We can all get the best from each other if we’re prepared to be a little bit vulnerable, to show up as a flawed (and of course, brilliant) human, and to put our trust in those around us.
So don’t put a corporate mask on as you walk through the door every day; bring your whole self in the door instead. Your interests, your best jokes, that embarrassing thing that happened at yoga last night, that’s all the stuff that makes you, you, and sharing is it what turns a team into a community.
Take the headphones off
Not always – are you crazy? Some of us couldn’t get through a day without a little Beyoncé. But we all know that sticking your headphones on is the equivalent of shutting the office door on your colleagues. Why not take a tip from the Insights office, and ask everyone to contribute to a shared Spotify playlist, so we can all share the office vibe? Or – if you want to go a step further – our Austin office has a Friday Disco. Honest. There’s a glitter ball and everything.
Find a collective purpose
Nothing binds a group of people together like a shared experience. Maybe some of your colleagues could make a pretty good basketball team - or a bad one that’s great fun anyway? There are loads of small ways to connect with others on a personal level – knitting clubs, pot luck Friday lunch, a 5pm running club?
Or maybe you could make it even more meaningful, if there’s a local charity or a great cause that you all agree to support together? That’s a twofer – you get to combat feelings of isolation at work through working together, and you do something to reduce it in the wider community too.
Whatever you choose to do, just start by keeping your loneliness antennae up. Who around you could use a little more human interaction; which colleague would have their spirits lifted by a phone call instead of a text; how could you step out from your usual boundaries and build more connections in your own community?