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Loneliness at work

I had the privilege of being interviewed by the fabulous Jenny Cole for her Positively Beaming Collective. (More about that here)

One of the questions that Jen asked me has given me pause for reflection (well, all the questions were about reflecting on my life and career, but this one in particular has stuck with me). The question was framed around being the only (or one of the few) women in a male dominated industry.

I gave an anecdote about a breakfast meeting I attended where a leader asked everyone to direct their breakfast requirements to me (as the only woman in the meeting). I’m still shocked by it but at the time I was angry.

And I realised after my conversation with Jenny, that I wasn’t just angry – I was struck by loneliness.

My sense of loneliness was from being one of the few women in the industry and my sense of isolation at not having many female peers that I could vent to about how that had made me feel, how many times similar events had happened in the past, would continue to happen, and what could be done to change or challenge the behaviour.

I have been lucky enough to have worked with a number of amazing women in my life, some I now call friends, however at the time, there wasn’t anyone in the meeting or close by that I felt I had the right connection with personally to be able to vent to.

And so the loneliness and anger hit.

That has not been an isolated incident. That loneliness is something that has been a constant through my career. And I don’t mean that I’m personally lonely – I’m surrounded by a wonderfully supportive bunch of amazing family and friends. But work and career loneliness is another thing entirely.

We all know that you can be lonely in the middle of a crowd.

I’ve had quite a few moments where the loneliness has been all pervasive – travelling on your own in a foreign country, for work, springs to mind immediately. Sitting in a hotel room, or a hotel or airport lounge,

Surrounded by people and yet connecting with no-one.

Similarly in the office, surrounded by people, but lonely. The loneliness of a woman in a male dominated industry is not unique. It is a loneliness felt by many in all sorts of industries and in all sorts of roles. It is even more prevalent at the moment with physical distancing.

Prior to the pandemic, it was flagged as one of the top trending topics for HR for 2020 - well before COVID-19 forced the eventuality of remote working.

As one of the trends of the workforce of the future, the rise of the gig economy, digital nomads, working flexibly to suit your life requirements meant that more and more people were either already working remotely, or intending to. That in and of itself doesn’t necessarily mean loneliness, however it can be very isolating and manifest in loneliness. There is also data from Cigna that shows a clear connection between work and loneliness.

Loneliness, personally and professionally, can be felt by anyone at any point in time, but particularly when you are remote and don’t have a sense of social connection.

There have been numerous studies on the effect of workplace loneliness on productivity, health and wellbeing. The Australian Loneliness Report from the Swinburne University and the Australian Psychological Society in 2018 is “…the most comprehensive study of loneliness completed in Australia.” The results on the impact to health and wellbeing were cause for concern then (in 2018), and with the isolation now associated with the lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, are of even greater concern now.

So how do we combat loneliness in a time where we need to be physically distanced for our own health and safety?

You may have gathered already, that connection is the key.

In a Ted talk by Susan Pinker from 2017, she discusses how close personal relationships and face-to-face interactions are the key secrets to living longer.

Based on research information gathered by Julianne Holt-Lunstad and explored by Susan in her book “The Village Effect”, it is simple things like making eye contact with the guy who makes your coffee that can take the edge off loneliness and, bonus, help you live longer.

Consistent social integration and intersection – those little interactions you have that don’t seem like much – are critical to your longevity and to help abate your loneliness.

What that means is that socialising and connecting is vital. And socialising can be simple, but it needs to be in-person and/or face to face for you to reap the benefits. With our self-isolation and lockdown, those benefits are still attainable by video (facetime, Skype, Zoom etc) …..

….it is eye contact that is fundamental.

Seems simple, putting it into effect can be tricky but doesn’t need to be. If you are meeting virtually:

  • Adjust your camera so it’s easy to actually look into it.

  • Close down distracting screens, books – whatever might take your focus from your conversation.

  • Be mindful and in the moment.

If you are starting to work from the office again, you may be on different office rosters to your usual team.

Prior to the pandemic, many offices were utilising hot-desking which also impacted the ease of sitting with your team and building those social connections.

Networked teams have changed the usual definition of who is in your team.

Agile ways of working may mean you are working with people you don’t usually.

These are all different ways of working, that could impact your belonging and affect your mental health at work. Many people are now in the same situation.

  • Make the effort to have a conversation in the kitchen or elevator or near the water cooler, with someone you don’t know.

  • Use your camera whenever you are in a virtual meeting.

Remember the “friend bench” at school?

It’s specifically in place for kids to go when they want someone to talk to or play with and encourages social interaction to remove isolation.

I’m not saying you should have a dedicated friend bench in the office, but hey, why not?

Physically distanced and socially disconnected are two very different things.

Reach out if you are isolated and reach out if you see someone on their own.

It takes a village.

Our post from March last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, has some very specific tactics to help you when working remotely.

There are simple ideas that are easy to implement to keep you connected and hopefully reduce your loneliness!

Our handout “Making Work from Home Work” (available on our website under “Free Resources”) also gives you some tips on what to do if your home becomes your office.

We also love these ideas from MindTools.

And if you are feeling the effects of loneliness at work, send me a LinkedIn connection request – I’m always up for a virtual or real coffee!

(Side note, with no research backing.... according to today’s Co-Star Day At a Glance “The slightest real experience can shatter your loneliness.” 😉 It’s in the stars as well!)

Author: Jude Mahony

20th July 2020


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