Three out of every five people in the U.S. report feeling lonely, and the pandemic has only heightened these emotions. What sounds like a social problem can actually be helped at work. In fact, people with good collegial relationships are ten points less lonely on an eighty-point scale. In short, leaders have an opportunity to influence these numbers because the workplace makes a difference in how lonely people feel.
The chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna says, “In-person connections are what really matters.” I recently spoke with consultant and Connection Culture author Michael Stallard about this dilemma. Stallard had his own experiences with loneliness early in his career despite being surrounded by many coworkers at his busy Wall Street job. Upon reflection, he realized this had a great deal to do with the workplace culture. While there were always many people in the office and a general sense of busyness, there was a lack of genuine connections happening.
In an earlier post, I highlighted my discussion with Stallard about the subconscious mental and physical side effects that result from our lack of opportunity to create social connections at work and in life. If loneliness has physical and mental manifestations like poor performance and outbursts on the job, what else is contributing to our absence of meaningful connections?
For instance, technology is a boon to our business world, but our fascination with optimizing performance could also be contributing to our heightened busyness—or fabricated busyness. Do we need to check our feeds and messages on our phones during meetings, or are we checking because we can? Do we fill the breaks between meetings responding to emails because we should or because we can?
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There are more questions like these that we can ask, so I prompted Stallard about busyness and its link to our stress response. Stallard explained that if we make time for connective relationships, then we can more easily process our ups and downs. It helps keep our bodies in a state of balance, or what scientists call homeostasis, rather than a state of stress. If we let busyness crowd out our time for connection, it’s going to affect our physical health.
Stallard’s point hit home for me. While I was CEO of Prologis, a winter season rarely, if ever, went by when I didn’t get sick—like pneumonia sick. I had taken on the position during a particularly stressful time in the company’s history, and since I retired, I recall getting sick only two times in nine years. My experience is not unlike the executives Stallard works with on managing two types of excellence measures.
As a CEO, you don’t always have a choice about the amount or variety of stressors, but you can strengthen the coping strategies and still perform at a higher level. Stallard recently cited a simple yet powerful success formula that was taught by Vince Lombardi and applies to the workplace: task excellence + relationship excellence = success.
When Stallard works with clients, he asks them to think of the figure Atlas from Greek mythology. While they look at an image of Atlas holding the weight of the world, Stallard asks leaders to write their stressors on the globe.
Next, he asks participants to write down supportive relationships and connections next to Atlas’s left leg. Then Stallard asks leaders to write down their resilience factors near the right leg. These factors might be sleep, diet, hobbies, downtime, and exercise. Stallard’s point of this exercise is to look at the whole picture and ask, “How do I strengthen Atlas’s legs so he can handle the stressors?”
Busyness often signals a greater issue with culture, according to Stallard. When leaders let the hustle and bustle of meeting deadlines overrun their employees’ time to meaningfully connect with one another, a culture of indifference takes over. People start to operate on a transactional basis, where perfunctory interactions take the place of personal connections and long days start to blend together.
A lack of connection in the workplace has real and significant side effects—outcomes that chip away at our healthy mindset and collective culture. Our obsession with productivity or task excellence can’t overshadow relationship excellence. We have to periodically examine our own weight of the world and determine our levels of relational support and resilience.