After 20 years in corporate HR, I needed a change of scenery. Now a member of the “gig-economy,” working for myself has been an adventure. Most “consultants” tell you the biggest adjustment they have switching from corporate-to-home is being alone. I am no exception.
As someone who is energized by people, loves leading teams, and enjoys sparring over the latest “Black Mirror” episode, it was a bit jarring. The fact is, at times I’m just plain lonely. As I tell some people, my cat Emma has become my “Wilson.” (Actually, since she runs the house, I’m probably her Wilson!)
I’ve come to find, loneliness isn’t just a work-from-home issue, but also a workplace epidemic. We are more connected than ever yet are failing to make human connections. Don’t get me wrong, being alone is OK. But when alone-ness turns into loneliness, the workplace consequences can be rough.
Why should HR care? I mean, if an employee doesn’t let you know he is lonely and still gets his work done, is it HR’s business? The answer is yes.
- 2018 job growth is better than expected and the unemployment rate (4.1%) is the lowest in the last 18 years. Employees can easily find greener pastures where they won’t be lonely.
- Being ignored (a cause of loneliness) for long periods causes significant burnout. Most people equate burnout with physical exhaustion, however, loneliness causes an anguish that takes up mental bandwidth leading to a decrease in cognitive abilities. Yikes.
- Loneliness creates employee disengagement. A disengaged employee is never good for business.
- Loneliness is bad for your health. One HBR article stated, “Research by Sarah Pressman… demonstrates that while obesity reduces longevity by 20%, drinking by 30%, and smoking by 50%, loneliness reduces it by a whopping 70%.”
HR, it’s time to put down the policy book and focus on your most important work. This is the work of building connections, inspiring trust-base practices, and creating positive employee experiences.
Here are seven ways HR can mitigate loneliness in the workplace.
- Hire managers with high EQ vs IQ. Modern leaders must have the ability to read emotions, show empathy, build trust, and make connections. If a leader’s “empathy-chip” is off, it is hard to be attuned when an employee shows signs of being lonely.
- Ensure leaders are prioritizing 1-on-1’s with their teams. This is a non-negotiable to me. The only way to build trust with an employee is by talking with them. If a leader builds trust, they have a better chance of knowing if an employee is disconnected, unengaged, or lonely.
- Allow employees to be their true selves. Leaders must model their ability to allow people’s true selves to shine. The loneliest place to be is where you have to pretend you are someone you are not. Isn’t it the worst when you see a team look and act exactly like their leader? This isn’t a coincidence. Get rid of these leaders.
- Create networking groups within your organization. This creates “shared experiences.” Create skill-specific guilds, volunteer groups, lunch and learns, or professional development groups in-house where people with common interests can meet each other. Then offer actual “networking” classes to employees. Throwing people into a skills-guild who don’t know how to talk to one another doesn’t achieve your goals of connection.
- Do “personal history” exercises with team members. This is a Patrick Lencioni exercise where people share something about their history. The best way to build trust is through sharing and allowing safe spaces to be vulnerable. It’s remarkable how well this exercise works.
- Use tools to measure engagement, assess 1-on-1 activity, and recognize employees. Likely, the biggest reason leaders don’t connect is because they “don’t have time.” That excuse doesn’t work anymore. If you don’t have the time, find some technology solutions to make this part of your job more efficient.
- Check on your CEO. One of the loneliest jobs in the world is CEO. They are only human and need a little love as well. Don’t forget them.