Many people do not know what Loneliness at work looks like. So I will share a real story.
It is an average morning. Paul is up at 6:30 am. He is supposed to get dressed for work. But that is not what he does. Instead, he gets back to bed, and lies there for another hour, staring at the ceiling.
He is a senior partner in a large consulting organisation. He is surrounded by clever, funny, like-minded people. He has the privilege of working in an area he is passionate in. If you had asked Paul 25 years ago, this would be a dream job. So why did he go back to bed that morning? Well, it’s not because he had a late night.
I coached Paul 2 years ago. Let me tell you why. He did it because he felt lonely. Staring at the ceiling for an hour was as much as he could do to face his own loneliness that morning. Paul is from a different generation to the people he manages. He thinks that ‘they don’t want to hear about my challenges’, ‘they don’t want me to show that I am NOT resilient.’ ‘I don’t want to be the embarrassing old bloke inviting them for drinks after 6pm.’
The result is that he feels almost entirely alone at work. Not only socially isolated, but also psychologically lonely. There is no one Paul can turn to, and confide his deepest worries, fears and moans about the upper management. This is more than lacking a good friend or being disengaged. He radically lacks a sense of belonging.
The Business challenge
A research led by Dr Michelle Lim and her Australia-wide network ‘Ending Loneliness Together’, found that 37% of Australian employees share feeling similar to Paul’s. They feel lonely. This figure was pre-COVID age, imagine what the figure could be now.
Let me ask you, How many of you can identify a colleague for whom the following would be true:
- They are physically present but absent in spirit
- They aren’t focused
- They are unproductive
- They are passive-aggressive
- They are reactive
- They lack appropriate social skills
- They are socially withdrawn
- They work non-stop
- They are restless and anxious
- They are on their phone scrolling through social media all the time
Only reading through that list, I feel drained. I’m not sure about you, but I can certainly identify a few people that I know who exhibit those behaviours. And I’m not talking about one-off behaviours but a regular pattern.
These patterns of behaviours are caused by aspects of loneliness and increase the risks of social anxiety, depression and other addictive behaviours. In my 15 years of experience as a consulting psychologist, I have been working with professionals and leaders to build up their psychological fitness. I have observed that, in most cases, the root cause of team conflict, disengagement, or lack of productivity, came from a form of disconnection. Disconnection within, when the work does not seem to make any sense, and disconnection from the people around.
The pandemic has highlighted the importance and urgency of addressing this issue of loneliness. Loneliness existed way before the pandemic. In the age of COVID, hybrid workplaces and the rise of short-term contract work can lead employees to feel even more lonely. The ‘comes and goes’ culture has become one of the leading risk factors of loneliness in the workplace.
It’s not about making sure loneliness never happens. Loneliness is a normal human experience. It is, rather, about making sure that, when we do experience loneliness and disconnection at work, we’re able to find our way back to belonging.
What is tricky about loneliness is that no matter how highly functional, you can still feel lonely. Someone who appears to be sociable and funny, can still feel lonely. Like Paul. Paul loves his job, and he is highly capable. Yet he does not feel like he belongs. He does not feel like there is a place he could share his thoughts and emotions. He does not feel like he is part of something.
Loneliness is a silent killer, which Beyond Story is here to help your organisation identify, process and solve.