We are getting worker loneliness all wrong

Loneliness is useful because it reminds us we need each other.

View of an office with empty cubicles

An art installation titled “Garden of Eden” representing an abandoned workspace at Fondazione Prada in Milan on March 30, 2022. Emanuele Cremaschi - Getty Images

“You are not meant to feel alone,” the CEO of a multi-billion dollar telecommunications company recently said as they wrestled with the reality of how lonely their workforce was growing.

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“You are not meant to feel alone,” the CEO of a multi-billion dollar telecommunications company recently said as they wrestled with the reality of how lonely their workforce was growing.

However, as someone who has spent years studying loneliness and wrote the first book to address workplace loneliness, I can confidently say they are wrong.

You are meant to feel alone. In fact, I hope you experience loneliness. If you experience loneliness, that means your brain works. A working brain is a good brain. I imagine you agree.

Humans’ basic biological needs like water, food, and sleep are tracked in the background of our brains by a complex homeostatic system seeking a natural balance. MIT neuroscientists, Kay Tye and Gillian Matthews, have proven a similar system exists for our social connections.

The same thing that drives us to eat and drink is similar to what drives us to connect and converse. In fact, in 2020, researchers proved just that: After 10 hours of social isolation, human participants reported substantially increased social craving, loneliness, discomfort, and dislike of isolation. They also demonstrated decreased happiness compared with when they started isolation.

Acute isolation causes social craving, similar to the way fasting causes hunger. Akin to hunger, loneliness is our biological signal to seek connection. It’s a motivational force to forge strong relationships. It’s our innate reminder that our presence matters to others. It’s proof we need each other.

Our brains have a biological makeup that drives our desire to be one with the pack. Loneliness isn’t just a social phenomenon, but a biological requirement. The research proves we are meant to feel alone.

Not feeling lonely would be the equivalent of never feeling thirsty thus neglecting to drink water and then collapsing unknowingly due to dehydration. Except with loneliness, we would drift away from others growing more isolated, frustrated, ill, and unfulfilled.

It’s comments like “you are not meant to feel alone” that keep loneliness stuck in the do-not-talk-about-it dark ages. It also hints at how much awareness is needed when it comes to loneliness at work.

While well-intended, these comments inadvertently project shame on anyone who feels lonely. This is what drives more concealment around loneliness and perpetuates a culture of isolation and disconnection.

The longer CEOs and leaders ignore or only give lip service to loneliness, the more people will conceal their feelings.

For far too long, loneliness has been shrouded in shame. It’s time to shed that shame. Loneliness isn’t shameful. It’s a signal that we belong together and that we are better together.

While loneliness is a universal, common, and useful human condition, the science of loneliness is very new. Due to the subjective nature of loneliness and difficulty in quantifying it, neuroscientists have long avoided studying it. This makes Tye and Matthews’ recent findings truly groundbreaking.

Since the research and science of loneliness are so new, we can’t expect leaders to fully understand it. For many, the first step in lessening loneliness among their team is to become aware of just how lonely and disconnected their teams really are–and then explore ways to cultivate more belonging.

Understanding we all experience loneliness provides the necessary permission to begin talking more openly about it and brainstorming how more connection can be cultivated.

CEOs and leaders are uniquely positioned to quench the loneliness that is rampant in the workforce.

Satisfying the human desire for belonging not only improves the wellbeing of individuals but results in improved recruitment, performance, engagement, and collaboration.

We are meant to feel lonely because we are meant for meaningful connection.

Ryan Jenkins, CSP, and Steven Van Cohen, MSOD, are founders of LessLonely.com, the world’s #1 resource for addressing workplace loneliness and creating more belonging at work. They are also the authors of Connectable: How Leaders Can Move Teams from Isolated to All In. Collectively they have over 20 years of experience helping organizations like Coca-Cola, The Home Depot, State Farm, John Deere, Delta Air Lines and Salesforce improve their teams.

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