The Plague of Loneliness

February 05, 2017

Loneliness in Nursing Homes

During my days of working in a nursing home, it was not unusual to observe elders experience and talk about loneliness. Bill Thomas (1999) identified loneliness as one of three plagues (as well as helplessness and boredom, forthcoming blogs) suffered by elders, and that these are the “true killers” of nursing home life.  When you listen to elders explain why they feel lonely, it is understandable.  Many elders, especially those living in a nursing home, have experienced so much loss: loss of spouse, maybe more than one, loss of close friends or companions, loss of independence, loss of physical and/or or mental functionality.  Now, having moved into a nursing home, most likely not voluntarily, they are even more isolated than ever before – away from family, from friends, from community, and from all things recognizable in their physical spaces.

I cared for elders both in a nursing home as well as while in their own homes. Elders do not have to live in a nursing home to experience loneliness. In fact, since the majority of elders continue to live in their own homes, many of us probably know an elder who has experienced isolation, emptiness, and desolation – all of which may lead to loneliness.

Loneliness in the Workplace

One of the connections from my nursing home experience and research is that I have noticed that the plague of loneliness also exists in the workplace. One does not have to be old or live in a nursing home to suffer from loneliness. We can simply look at suicide rates across all age groups to see how many people suffer from loneliness.  We may experience loneliness even while working in any organization, despite that work is a social activity. It is social because work is done, for many of us with people and at the very least, for people. When you are not connecting with the people you spend so many hours of the day with, the natural effect is loneliness.

Although loneliness appears to be intensely personal and private, it is much more than that. Using C. Wright Mills’ sociological imagination, loneliness and isolation as a private problem is very much a public and collective issue.  This plague not only affects the individuals within an organization, but the organization itself.  Therefore, leadership within organizations need to be aware of and recognize when they are infected on multiple levels.  The plague of loneliness is the effect of when teammates are disconnected on a human level with other teammates, and when there is inadequate attention paid to the human side of getting work done as a team.

Many organizations have teams within the larger team. Therefore, loneliness at a team level may exist even if the individuals within that team appear to be connected and working cohesively.  Yet, as a team, they operate as a silo. They are disconnected from the other teams within the organization; make team decisions in isolation or without considering the impact on the other teams; do not share ideas or withhold knowledge for their own team’s self interest; or the team is simply so focused on accomplishing their own goals and mission, and have lost sight of the overall organization’s mission and goals wherein all teams work collaboratively and effectively.  Thus, the plague of loneliness affects both at the individual and team levels, and can be very detrimental to the overall health and culture of the organization.

Why Loneliness Matters

Why does loneliness in the workplace matter? Research has shown the effects of loneliness on work performance that include: withdrawal from work, weaker productivity, motivation, and overall performance (Barsade & Ozcelik, 2011). Additionally, this effect does not happen in a vacuum; co-workers can recognize loneliness amongst each other and they see it hindering the team’s effectiveness. Teams who suffer from loneliness are not collaborative, they lack trust with each other, the other teams, and most likely their leadership. This in turn, creates a culture within their own team that can be harmful to the mission and the overall effectiveness of the larger team and organization.

Although the plague of loneliness may be a personal emotion, it is most certainly and should be a collective concern since its effects reverberates throughout the individual teams, the team at large or the organization, and the community.

How to Address Loneliness in the Workplace

  1. Create a culture where TEAM is a priority. Be deliberate in creating a culture that is balanced with social events and team building activities so people understand that they are not there merely to get a job done, nor done alone or in their own silo. The culture is one wherein teammates share the vision and are connected with each other, both as individuals and teams, and work together (like a system) in order to accomplish the organization’s bigger mission. Teams who are connected should not feel isolated or lonely.
  2. Connect with your teammates on a human level.  Build relationships and even friendships with teammates whereby people feel they are supported and can count on each other. These connections and friendships are important because without human and social connection at work, people make less “discretionary effort” – the kind of work that lifts a teammate’s performance past being the contributor of the bare minimum. It’s more than just a job, it becomes meaningful work.
  3. Take time to show/express your gratitude. Often, small gestures like a simple expression of gratitude to your teammate(s) is overlooked as a meaningful activity for both the one expressing gratitude as well as receiving it. Be purposeful in looking for these opportunities, acknowledging that your hard work almost always involves someone else in one way or another.

I believe that these are just a few ways that the plague of loneliness can be addressed  from all levels – individual, team and organizational – to minimize its effects.

Do you recognize the plague of loneliness in your workplace?

The antidote to loneliness is relating to and connecting with others!

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