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The Painful Cycle of Employee Loneliness, and How It Hurts Companies

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Loneliness is a painful and pernicious emotion. Defined as “a complex set of feelings that occurs when intimate and social needs are not adequately met,” Loneliness is different from depression, being alone, or feelings of solitude. It has more to do with a person’s quality of social relationships rather than their quantity.

Loneliness has been long studied in psychological literature when it comes to family, romantic, or social lives. But there is very little research on how the experience of being lonely plays out in the workplace. As awareness about loneliness increases — British Prime Minister Teresa May appointed a minister for loneliness earlier this year, and former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote about the topic for HBR in 2017 — it’s important to understand exactly how people experience loneliness in their jobs. How does it affect their work? How does it shape their relationships with colleagues? And what can be done to help a lonely employee?

Our research, recently published in the Academy of Management Journal, finds that a person’s feeling of loneliness does relate to lower job performance. In addition, lonely employees were perceived by their coworkers to be less approachable and less committed to the organization. But, importantly, we also find that loneliness is not simply the lonely employee’s problem; it influences colleagues as well as performance outcomes. Organizations need to take tackling the problem of loneliness seriously for both their employees’ sake as well as the sake of the organization itself.

Our findings came from a field study involving 672 employees across 143 work groups and their 114 supervisors. These employees and supervisors worked either for a for-profit private company or a city government of a West Coast U.S. metropolis of approximately 120,000 people. There was wide occupational diversity in each sample. We surveyed 88 different positions in the public municipality, including clerks, truck drivers, managers, engineers, police officers, and many others. The private for-profit company is a service and manufacturing outsourcer, with over 41 different positions, including project managers, accounting specialists, supervisors, administrative assistants, and material handlers. Data came from multiple sources: we have data from employees about their level of workplace loneliness, data from their colleagues about their approachability, and job performance ratings from their supervisors.

In general, we found that lonely employees tend to isolate themselves, feeling less connected to their organization as a whole, and are observed by colleagues as more distant and less approachable in both work related and personal matters.  These findings add to the voluminous research literature showing that that the behavior of lonely people has the effect of increasing their own loneliness. In other words, even though the person may desperately want to connect with others, they see their environment as threatening and become hyper-vigilant and overly sensitive to the responses of others. When this occurs, they become less — not more — approachable to colleagues, thus perpetuating a difficult cycle where loneliness leads to greater social vigilance. As a result, lonelier people are more likely to pull away.

Our results also show that lonelier employees feel less committed to their organization overall, suggesting that when negative feelings predominate, lonely employees decide that certain relationships are not worth the effort. This decision then fans out to ever-widening circles of potential connections within the organization. When social ties begin to fray among colleagues, a willingness to communicate and collaborate based on feelings of trust disintegrates. And when work depends on these relationships, entire teams and even departments can suffer. In this way, loneliness is not just about individual people; it influences the group and organization as a whole.

Luckily, there are solutions. If organizations can provide timely and effective support for lonelier employees, they can help break the negative cycle of workplace loneliness. In one meta-analysis of common intervention strategies to reduce loneliness, researchers found that the most effective interventions were those targeting maladaptive social cognitions, such as lonelier people’s negatively biased perceptions of how they are perceived or how trustworthy others are. Lonelier people have also been shown to benefit significantly from intervention programs that focus on clarifying participants’ needs in friendship, analyzing their current social networks, setting friendship goals, and developing strategies to achieve these goals. In addition, because loneliness inhibits the motivation and skills of lonelier people to reach out, any intervention requires considerable effort and follow-up — it is not enough to connect lonelier people with others once or twice and expect relationships to magically form. Rather than bringing people together, being surrounded by more lonely colleagues was also associated with less emotional attachment to the organization, also known as affective commitment.

A company’s culture also plays a role in expressing the values and norms about the emotions that are allowed to be expressed at work. In our study, we found that a stronger versus weaker emotional culture of companionate love (featuring expressions of affection, caring, compassion and tenderness among employees) weakens the negative relationship between workplace loneliness and affective commitment to the organization. A stronger versus weaker emotional culture of anger (anger, irritation, frustration, annoyance), however, strengthens the negative relationship between workplace loneliness and commitment to the organization and colleagues.

Our findings make a dent, but there’s a lot we still need to learn about loneliness at work. How can organizations help employees alleviate their feelings of loneliness? Are people neurologically inclined to ignore lonely employees? How can employees learn to address their own feelings of loneliness? How often does workplace loneliness occur, and how long does it take for an employee’s feelings of loneliness to change? And how can organizations prevent loneliness in organizations in the first place? But managers would be wise to recognize that loneliness does, in fact, occur among their employees. This is not only a distressing feeling for the person experiencing it; loneliness has organizational repercussions we’re only just beginning to understand.



This post first appeared on 5 Basic Needs Of Virtual Workforces, please read the originial post: here

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The Painful Cycle of Employee Loneliness, and How It Hurts Companies

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