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How the best leaders can acknowledge the other pandemic: Loneliness

March 17, 2021, 2:03 PM UTC

We were already in a pandemic when COVID struck: The loneliness pandemic. 

More than a year ago, 60% of Americans reported feeling lonely, left out, poorly understood or lacking companionship. It’s only gotten worse. 

As companies prepare for the logistics of returning to work, the mental-health crisis of their employees looms large. Surveys show anxiety and stress affect productivity and retention; TELUS International  says 80% of workers would consider leaving their current employer for one that focuses more heavily on mental health. 

How can workers and managers solve for burnout and loneliness as a part of our transition to the workplace of the future? The twin pandemics are hitting workers hard, but also represent an opportunity to rethink and reconnect dynamics among teams. That’s the message of two new books on the subject. 

“We are on the cusp of a reset. How often in life do we get a do-over?” asked Susan McPherson, author of The Lost Art of Connecting: The Gather, Ask, Do Method for Building Meaningful Business Relationships. “Now we have the ability to go forth knowing how important, how vitally necessary having hugs and meaningful deep conversation is, to gather in groups outside of existing family. We also know the power of technology, good and bad. We have the chance to do it right.”

Her research and that of economist Noreena Hertz , author of The Lonely Century: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That’s Pulling Apart find common ground and offer concrete, prescriptive ideas to combat loneliness. 

Reach out

The transition in the months ahead means it’s time to stop the back-to-back Zoom calls. We need the space and time to connect, perhaps even in person on a park bench. 

“If you are lonely, can you commit to helping someone else?” asked Hertz. “To feel more connected to others, think of who in your own networks might be lonely too. Pick up the phone. Send a text.”

Helping people is a learned trait, says McPherson. “Certain people are wired to be helpful and supportive,” she said. (Side note: She’s one of them; in the course of reporting this column, she made several introductions for me.) “You need to see the benefits that come from being that way. And then what happens when you build meaningful relationships? People show up for you.”

Make kindness a core value of the workplace

“Qualities that are valorized in the workplace are not necessarily caring for colleagues, being nice and kind to them,” said Hertz. “Such behaviors are deemed as a strike against you.”

That needs to change. She cited the examples of companies that invite nominations for thousands of dollars in cash prizes to reward kindness in the workplace. 

Make small talk great again

“Go to your dry cleaner and do the pleasantries, asking seriously how is she or he or they?” said McPherson. “Is there anything their family needs? To me that’s connecting.“

The time before meetings or in the elevator is really important, says Hertz. We’ve lost that in the pandemic but need to bring it back and build it into remote working. 

People are missing that social chitchat. It’s impossible to replicate on Zoom,” she said. She suggested bonding exercises that might create smaller breakouts within meetings.  

Eat lunch together

Researchers at Cornell, according to Hertz, studied the habits of firefighters for more than a year. They discovered the fire companies who ate lunch together had significantly higher levels of morale and were more effective. 

Breaks together, for coffee or a walk outside, can foster the same. When offices reopen, employers must try to create these informal collisions for employees. 

Ask about loneliness 

Managers owe it to their people, both authors said, to be explicit in gauging loneliness. It’s not enough to know this is a problem and vow to solve it post-pandemic. Especially because it’s been with us for so long.

McPherson: “The onus is on the CEO to do something about it. They should be picking up the phone and literally reaching out to their workforce.”

Hertz suggests explicitly asking about loneliness in employee surveys. She adds:Keep in touch. Everybody’s having trouble. This is a time for the younger folks to be seen. It’s a level playing field. We are all in this together.”

Be vulnerable

It’s okay to share that you, as a CEO or manager, are lonely, too. 

“Colleagues live in fear of, ‘I am sharing too much,’” said McPherson. She said she has told her colleagues that she has cried herself to sleep on many nights in the pandemic and has been lonely. “Right now is a perfect opportunity to share some of the challenges,” said McPherson. “If you run a company, you should be vulnerable.”

Open office spaces don’t necessarily breed togetherness 

A female worker was out of the office for weeks after surgery—and nobody ever noticed. Her employer had people moving around desks so nobody knew where this woman sat—and thus did not miss her when she was gone. Hertz recounted the anecdote and worried that focus on post-pandemic collaboration might mean not giving workers assigned seats or cubicles. 

These open spaces are meant to bring us together and yet in practice, the opposite happens,” she said. Indeed, many offices are talking about using “hot desks” to accommodate blended work-from-home and in-office workers. “I would caution against that approach given the fact that we know remote workers feel even more isolated. I would also caution against a slashed physical footprint in office. We must be acknowledging that that comes with cost.”

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