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Feeling Lonely? Leaders Have a Unique Opportunity to Fight the Growing Trend

If you held a meeting with four of your colleagues, the latest research predicts that three of you would report feeling lonely. What’s more, social factors like the pandemic and increasing use of social media across all age groups has only intensified these emotions. Loneliness robs us of our intrinsic motivation to perform and, if experienced long term, imposes negative physical effects too.

Leaders have an opportunity to influence these numbers because the workplace makes a difference in how lonely people feel. In fact, people with good collegial relationships are ten points less lonely on an eighty-point scale. 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 activity, there was a lack of genuine connections happening.

Connections influence our mental and physical well-being

What helped Stallard understand the disconnect between a seemingly full life and feelings of isolation was a conversation with Robert Sapolsky at Stanford University. Stallard relayed his key learnings: when your body senses a lack of strong relational support or connections in your life, it perceives this condition as a threat, according to Sapolsky.

The body goes into a state of stress response, overallocating blood glucose and oxygen to the fight and flight systems—the heart, lungs, and big muscles. This reaction prompts an underallocation to the part of the brain that handles memory, digestive, immune, and reproductive functions. When people experience this drought of relational support for any length of time, their physical health starts to decline. 

This stress response, Stallard says, causes you to experience greater anxiety, depression, and anger. With increases in loneliness due to the pandemic, we’re seeing greater incidences of anger in our world. Even before the pandemic was underway, a survey of three thousand people reported that 84 percent are angrier than they were a year earlier. 

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Today, reports of escalating behavior in restaurants, airports, and other public settings are increasing. Cape Cod restaurant owner Brandi Felt Castellano told the New York Times, “It’s like abuse.” She closed her establishment for twenty-four hours to give her weary staff a “day of kindness” break. “People are always rude to restaurant workers, but this far exceeds anything I’ve seen in twenty years,” said Castellano.

When leaders read commentary like this, they have to be thinking, “If these angry customers have day jobs, how is that playing out at work?” Our personal observations and research tell us that the workplace is experiencing its own rising tide of incivility. In a bonus chapter I’ve recently written on rethinking empathy, I cited a report from an annual survey on civil discourse since 2010. It consistently finds that more than 95 percent of Americans say incivility is a problem and 65-68 percent call it a major problem.

There’s never been a greater need for a connected culture, and leaders have a chance to stem the tide. Stallard’s exploration of the physical and behavioral reasons why we need to facilitate meaningful connections at work are a critical call to action.

In the second installment of this series, find out what Stallard suggests for overcoming the side effects that are caused by a lack of connections. Spoiler alert: his strategy works for both leaders and employees.

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