Woman Working in Dark Office

A recent study by Cigna found that nearly half of Americans feel alone or left out. David M. Cordani, president and chief executive officer of Cigna, says, “We’re seeing a lack of human connection, which ultimately leads to a lack of vitality.”

In addition to lacking vitality, the head researcher of one 2015 study on loneliness, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, states loneliness has the same effect on your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Holt-Lunstad’s study also found that loneliness increases your risk for obesity and high blood pressure, exceeding risks for these conditions from alcohol consumption, physical inactivity and air pollution. In general, lonely people have poorer physical and mental health, sleep less or less well and have weaker social skills than people who do not report high levels of loneliness.

According to the Cigna study, there’s a significant link between loneliness and work, which means employers can play an important role in relieving loneliness. And it’s important that employers understand the seriousness of this issue for the workplace, as poor physical and mental health correlates to higher absenteeism. Lack of sleep leads to lower productivity and decreased attentiveness to tasks. And weaker social skills impede communication with internal and external customers. Like employee disengagement, loneliness can be dangerous to your team health.

But connections can help you combat loneliness. Here are some suggestions:

  • Lunch-and-Learn mini-workshops: Encourage staff members to choose a job-related topic, learn about it and share what they learn during lunchtime mini-workshops. This practice encourages growth and development while fostering social connections. Conducting these workshops over lunch feels more relaxed and sociable than during a formal team meeting.
  • Inter-team connections: Connect a staff member on your team with someone in a similar role on another team. Odds are, similar job roles have similar struggles, so employees may find they can offer support to one another. Inter-teaming also provides opportunities to discover more about other teams or departments, which may foster additional growth and development.
  • Check in regularly: Schedule regular touch points with each member of your team. Weekly or biweekly scheduled time to meet with you helps each team member feel valued and important, but only if you keep each appointment — if you start canceling meetings, you communicate that the team member is less important than the task you’re canceling for. When you do meet, let team members drive the conversation by asking them to prepare topics — and then discuss them! If you drive the conversation based on your agenda, you break trust and damage the relationship with your team member.
  • Use probing questions: Questions that dig beneath the surface to encourage team members to share opinions and feelings help you learn more about them. And because you should be willing to answer anything you ask, team members will discover more about you! Managers can use time during one-on-one interactions to ask and answer probing questions such as, “What is the most important lesson you’ve learned this month/quarter/year?” These questions help build, strengthen or repair your relationships and encourage connections with team members. To foster additional connections among employees, start team meetings with probing questions such as, “How do you recharge?” By disclosing personal information in the group, team members may discover shared interests that foster deepening connections.

Encouraging connections and tamping down loneliness benefits everyone in your workspace.

Michelle L. Wescott is the Chief Development Officer at Gillespie Associates, (www.gillespieassociates.com), an employee development and training company, where she created and facilitates Gillespie Nimble New Manager JumpStart, a leadership development program for first-time managers. Wescott is a certified professional in learning and performance and holds a master’s of education degree in instructional design. She has been working in and around employee development for about 20 years.