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Is workplace Loneliness on the rise?

Is workplace Loneliness on the rise?
ArticleHealthCompany Culture

​We spend eight hours a day with them.

We work on projects together which take up weeks or even months of our time.

We exchange hundreds of emails.

We know who always goes out to buy fast food for lunch every day and who drinks all of the Coke Zero from the fridge.

As Tim says from The Office, “You spend more time with them than you do your friends and family.” I am, of course, talking about work colleagues. According to a recent survey, 42% of us say we don’t have a single close friend at work.

Workplace loneliness is rising, but if we are just there to work – as every school teacher will have said to us at one time or another – then why do we care if we don’t have friends in the office?

Having a close ally at work has been proven to increase productivity and employee loyalty as well as being a key contributing factor in boosting your career progression. It also plays a significant role in generally increasing our day-to-day happiness. A recent survey by Bright HR shows that 68% of workers aged 16-24 illustrated workplace enjoyment as ‘having great colleagues I enjoy spending time with’.

“Camaraderie and social connection are key to their [workers’] workplace satisfaction” says Jenny Roper, deputy editor of HR magazine. Laurie Cohen, a professor at Nottingham University Business School says, “In my research, many women in male-dominated organisations said they felt lonely, but what they described as ‘loneliness’ was often marginalisation: their voices weren’t being heard.”

This isn’t, however, a gender issue. Take a sales environment for example, if you aren’t loud and lairy then you aren’t usually heard over the extrovert show-offs in the office. People who are more introverted feel undervalued and as though they aren’t being listened to over the top of those who shout the loudest. Being an introvert certainly doesn’t mean being a total wallflower, but being a bit shy in an overbearing office can be just as isolating as being the only woman in the boardroom.

As a species, we subconsciously gravitate towards people we perceive to be ‘like us’. We form friendships with those we see as having similar personalities to ourselves. So what if we find ourselves on the outside of a group of people who have gravitated towards each other?

Being on the outside of a dominant group in an office – whether it’s because you’re too quiet, or because you’d rather talk about Brexit than drinking, eyelashes and football – can affect your progression and likelihood to succeed in a company. Cliques will be formed within companies, which unfortunately can’t really be helped and feeling like an outsider only leads us to isolate ourselves further.

Steve Martyn, psychotherapist and workplace coach, says that being on the outside of these kinds of groups “can alter your self-perception. Someone who feels like they don’t fit in begins to doubt what they’re capable of achieving in their career, even beyond their current place of work.” When this happens, we see ourselves as rejected and pushed out by the group, so our brain’s self-preservation mode kicks in, causing us to err on the side of caution as opposed to pushing us to be more social. Nowadays, it’s much more difficult to form strong bonds and friendships with our colleagues as the turnover in business is much higher than it used to be.

People used to spend 30-40 years at the same company, now the average time spent in one place is 4.6 years. Sociologist at New York University, Eric Klinenberg, says, “It’s the quality not the quantity of social interaction that best predicts loneliness.” With the way that we work now, hot-desking, freelancing, network marketing etc, the time to create close friendships just isn’t there.

According to technology company Intuit, by 2020 40% of workers will be freelance and by 2018 the number of self-employed in the UK will outweigh public sector workers for the first time. We all feel the need to fit in but we just aren’t spending enough time with the same people to cultivate those relationships. This isn’t just ‘newbie mentality’ either; feelings of isolation tend to increase as we get promotions up to more senior positions within our companies.

A survey by Harvard Business School found that half of CEOs said they feel lonely in their positions and 61% believed said loneliness hindered their performance at work. They are constantly fighting a battle between showing authority and leadership versus being liked and having friends within their company.

Forcing yourself to go for drinks when you’d rather be at home is as much a recipe for misery as not going at all. “It requires a huge amount of emotional effort to put a mask on and pretend to be someone you’re not” says psychotherapist, Hilda Burke. You need to make a compromise which fits and works for you, not everyone else. The last thing you want to do is to change who you are just to fit in and be accepted by other people, who you may not even like that much.

Compromise is the important thing to remember. You don’t have to go out to every little get together, but say yes to the odd dinner or go to the pub for one drink. You’ll find that because you are turning up to things every so often, you will be considered for other events and start being invited along more frequently, even if you don’t go.

Alternatively, start asking your colleagues yourself; see if they want to go out for lunch or for a drink, very few people will say no.

Despite all of this, forcing social interaction will not cure the issue of loneliness because you may not necessarily stop feeling lonely just because you are surrounded by people. The human species needs a reciprocated connection, where the relationship is valued just as much by the other person as it is by them.

It’s only natural to seek out connections with the people we spend most of our lives with. We have formed such strong societies because of our aversion to loneliness. As Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and founder of the Lean In Foundation says, “Acting like a coalition really does produce results.”

And if there’s someone in your coalition who will go to Starbucks for you and lend an ear when you need it, even if the only thing you have in common is the fact you walk around on the same bit of carpet for eight hours a day, it beats walking around on it alone.

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