The United Kingdom-based newspaper The Guardian recently ran this headline: “UK to tackle loneliness crisis with cash injection. More than 120 projects will receive funding to help those affected and reduce stigma.”
This reminded me of a book written in 2000, “Bowling Alone,” by Robert D. Putnam. The gist of the book: connections among our social networks have dropped in contemporary America.
Putnam attributed the decline in feeling connected to four factors:
- People born in the 1920s and ‘30s were/are more socially connected than later generations due to social habits and values developed during World War II;
- Television caused people to withdraw into their “nests” – with the TV being on up to seven hours a day (the book was written pre-social media; in 2000 Mark Zuckerberg was 16 years old.)
- The pressures of time and money. Who has time to chat with a neighbor over a backyard fence?
- The rise of “sprawl” – living farther and farther from centers of activity. Whatever happened to the village green?
If you think engagement is important…
This decline in feeling connected – even though we are more technologically connected than ever – parallels and overlaps the abysmal state of employee engagement. According to a 2015 Gallup survey, 68 percent of U.S. employees do not feel engaged at work.
If you don’t feel engaged, if you don’t feel connected, of course you’re more likely to feel lonely. Safety and health pros should be concerned about feelings of loneliness for the same reasons they desire “cultures of engagement.”
Loneliness is not about physical isolation. You can be surrounded by people every day and feel alone. Both engagement and loneliness primarily focus on feelings. Surveys on engagement and surveys on loneliness touch on many of the same issues, Gallup’s famous Q12 survey on engagement asks about feelings and perceptions:
- Do you know what is expected of you at work?
- At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?
- In the last seven days, have you’ve received recognition or praise for doing good work?
- Does your supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about you as a person?
- Do your opinions seem to count?
- Do you feel your job is important?
- Do you have a best friend at work?
A quiz on loneliness I came across asked similar questions:
- How often do you feel you have no one to talk to?
- How often do you feel as if nobody really understands you?
- How often do you feel shut out and excluded by others?
- How often do you feel it is difficult to make friends?
You can see the overlap. Both engagement and loneliness have to do with feeling supported, connected, that someone cares about you, that you and your feelings and opinions matter, that you are not shut out and excluded but receive feedback and recognition.
Of course loneliness – and disengagement – can be exacerbated by isolation and remoteness. Certain occupations, such as long haul truckers, transient construction workers, oil field workers – think of workers living in motels, eating at bars, away from family and friends -- also utility workers, social workers, and other so-called “lone workers” are at risk of feel lonely, that there is no support, no one cares or knows what they are doing. Personality is a factor, too: some people enjoy solitude -- being “far from the maddening crowd” and “off the grid.” For others, remote living and working can cause boredom, anxiety, depression, substance abuse and sleep disturbances.
Both loneliness and disengagement have some overlapping negative outcomes: reduced productivity; possibly increased absences or “presenteeism” – being physically but not mentally on the job; quality defects; higher turnover; potential theft; safety incidents caused by being distracted or fatigued. But loneliness more than disengagement carries potentially serious health risks. According to research, lonely workers are unhealthy. They are at greater risk of cardiovascular disease; compromised immunity; increased risk of depression; and shortened lifespan.
The reduced lifespan linked to loneliness is similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and it’s greater than the impact on lifespan of obesity, former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murphy told the Washington Post.
What to do?
Talk about loneliness as a safety issue. Or an occupational health issue. Yes. There is truth to these headlines: “Loneliness is a public health threat.” “Widespread loneliness is killing people and we need to start talking about it.”
Is this just hype? U.S. data from the Pew Organization shows most Americans do not participate in social groups; many industrialized countries are seeing decreasing rates of marriage; an increasing rate of living alone; increased rates of childlessness; reduced volunteering and participation in religious groups; and the decreasing size of the household.
Think beyond just putting a ping-pong table in the workplace. Get serious. Workplace practices, policies, values and cultures need to be systematically evaluated in terms of how they foster connection – or take away from it. Get serious about the work/life balance. Data shows that longer hours spent on work aren’t always associated with greater profits and productivity. Denmark is one of the healthiest countries in the world on the World Happiness Index, and in Denmark there is a strong social norm that the workday ends at 5 pm. If someone has a family, you don’t schedule meetings for 4 pm. Be flexible.
Increasingly, and especially among younger generations, job flexibility and valuing the work/life balance is a key factor in choosing employment. Want to retain talent and reduce turnover? Loosen up a bit.
Finally, you’ve heard it before: get out from under the paperwork and behind the desk, walk the floor, ask employees how they are doing, know them by name, listen about their families and hobbies, support, encourage, give feedback, show that you care.
— Dave Johnson, ISHN Editor, firstname.lastname@example.org