February 22, 2023

3 Ways Leaders Can Help Employees Feel Less Lonely

When I was a young securities lawyer, I was tapped to lead a huge bond offering with a group of competitive and territorial colleagues. Determined to try to push me off the deal, they made my life miserable. I ended up spending Thanksgiving working in a windowless room at the financial printers. I felt frustrated, alone, and very nearly quit.

Today’s work environment feels a lot like missing Thanksgiving every day. We’ve been pushed into our corners, disconnected from peers. In fact, loneliness is one of the most urgent issues facing companies today. Isolation and disconnection drive both the so-called great resignation and quiet quitting. People who don’t feel connected at work will neither engage nor stay. Lest you think your workforce is immune, the numbers are staggering: 62% of American workers are lonely. This costs businesses $154 billion a year through soaring absenteeism and untold productivity loss. The financial imperative to combat loneliness is clear.

But even more important is the human imperative for leaders to tackle isolation head on. The human brain processes social exclusion as pain - your lonely employees are literally hurting. Even if they stick around, you lose their spirit. And in many cases, their respect.

Once that happens, engagement is impossible. But as a leader, there’s a lot you can do – right now – to stop the pain and financial drain of loneliness.

  1. Be vulnerable. As a senior leader, you probably know loneliness better than anyone. Studies have shown for years that leaders suffer in their own isolation, with few peers. During today’s seismic workplace shifts and ongoing global upheaval, leaders don’t want to further destabilize their organizations, so they often mask fears and failures with false bravado, silence, or canned “key messages.” But your employees sometimes need to know how you really feel. They need to see your emotions and know that you don’t always have all the answers. Heineken CEO Dolf van den Brink said it well: “One of the key things I learned the hard way is that the No. 1 thing that generates trust is vulnerability, and vulnerability starts with the boss.”

    Openly acknowledging your vulnerability helps to flatten the hierarchy and inspire trust, respect, and new ideas. It invites people to share their wisdom and experience, and even insights you need and haven’t necessarily thought of. And most of all, it reveals your humanity. When you show your employees that you too wake up in the middle of the night worrying about the future, they realize they are not alone.
  2. Actively listen to your employees. There’s no feeling lonelier than not being heard or seen. But you have the antidote: ask your colleagues for their opinions. And when you ask the question, then be prepared to truly listen and consider the answer, even if you don’t like what you hear. Ignoring the answer is worse than never asking at all.

    An honest, curious question is your single most powerful engagement tool – when you listen to the answer with humility and a willingness to challenge your own assumptions. This act recognizes another’s voice and values their contribution. And perhaps even more importantly, it shifts your own mindset from one of problem solving to learning. Your openness to new ideas from all sources helps you be a better leader while drawing people back into the fold. Imagine the delight of the Frito-Lay executive who took the now infamous call from the company janitor who invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
  3. Rebuild what remote work has stolen. Most people want to work remotely, but they don’t want to give up the connections they had when they used to work in an office. In fact, those connections are more important than ever. If ever there were a time to bust the outdated myth that the personal and professional should not mix – it is now. Research by Gallup shows that having a best friend at work makes people happier, more engaged and more productive. But in the face of changing workplace dynamics, these relationships don’t happen easily by themselves.

    To encourage social connections at work, you have to make intentional time and space to foster and nurture them - even when there’s lots of other work to be done. It’s more than happy hour or the water cooler. You need structured activities that invite people to connect as human beings, share their stories, and learn about and with each other - virtually or in person.

    A few years back, a group of factory workers in a plant in Wisconsin were given regular time to explore non-work-related ideas through stories. A young lathe operator said the experience completely changed the team’s relationships, quoting John Steinbeck to describe their transformation: “You can’t hate a man once you know him,” he said, “and now that we know each other, there’s no problem we can’t solve together.”

Loneliness at work is not new. But it’s exploded as our world has changed. Since most Americans spend more waking hours with their colleagues than their families, work is the epicenter of the loneliness epidemic. The best tonic is you: encouraging relationships, actively working to connect your company, and ensuring your people are seen and valued by a leader they respect.

First published on Forbes.com.

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