Together, but still lonely? Steps to strengthen togetherness in the workplace

Have you felt lonely? Or lonely at work? Has remote work increased your sense of loneliness?

In one way or another, loneliness touches us all. As many as one out of three Finns experiences loneliness on a regular basis, which means no workplace is immune to this phenomenon.

The experience of loneliness cannot be defined through the number of social contacts or other external factors. Emotional loneliness happens when you are in company but still feel lonely; it is the most painful form of loneliness. Experienced loneliness may accumulate in a work community. Unfortunately phenomena such as ostracism, discrimination and rejection are not limited to the school world, but affect workplaces, too. Recognising these hidden phenomena requires vigilance and courage from everyone. Identifying loneliness and tackling the phenomenon in the work community is crucial, as it may have long-term impacts. The sense of exclusion in the workplace impairs productivity and, in the long term, affects coping at work. It may also increase the risk of other mental health issues.

Professor Niina Junttila, a researcher specialised in loneliness, suggested that loneliness activates our inherent alarm system: stress hormones increase and blood vessels contract (Yle, 2021). The amount of cortisol increases, while oxytocin and serotonin levels collapse and the immune system weakens. This goes to show that loneliness is a highly holistic and subjective experience. People experiencing loneliness have a tenfold risk of depression or anxiety disorder.

According to research, the COVID-19 pandemic which forced us to switch to remote work and restrict our social contacts has resulted in an increased sense of loneliness both at work and at leisure. The results of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health survey How is Finland doing? (2021) indicate that well-being at work has diminished especially among young remote workers who live alone. Work motivation has decreased among people living alone while boredom at work has increased. The trend is logical, considering that the work community is only available online, which is another factor contributing to loneliness.

Six small steps to tackle loneliness

According to Doctoral Researcher Outi Köhler, the internal strength of an organisation is not dependent on strong individuals but emerges as a result of understanding the significance and functionality of peer relationships within and between teams and among company management (University of Turku, 2021). Strength lies in genuinely seeing, hearing and connecting with each other. By cherishing relationships, we can achieve a great deal of good on the level of individuals. As with many other things, small steps make a big difference.

Here is a list of six small steps that can help tackle loneliness and create connections in the workplace:

  1. Identify loneliness: pay attention if a team member tends to withdraw or is regularly left outside the group. Is there something you can do? Which words and expressions could you use to foster connection, encourage participation, suggest teamwork and ask for opinion? Identify situations where it is possible to participate and involve others.
  2. Participate in moments shared by the team: Is it possible to have more opportunities for connecting in your workplace, whether related to work, development or recreation? Connecting contributes to the sense of doing things together and helps decrease loneliness.
  3. Show interest in your colleagues: Try to be open and curious about people around you. Bear in mind that we can never know what people are going through or have on their minds. Simple questions such as “how are you?” can truly make a difference to someone.
  4. Build a positive environment: Occasional friendly gestures create a positive atmosphere in the work community. Think about your contribution to the workplace atmosphere and what you could do this week to improve it.
  5. Check your remote work practices: In remote meetings, participants tend to feel less connection, which increases the experience of loneliness. Whenever possible, keep the camera on and pay attention to your communication. Exchanging a few friendly words during or after discussing the official business may strengthen the connection between participants.
  6. Value your breaks: Breaks are essential; they  support coping at work and help to overcome loneliness. Breaks provide excellent opportunities to share ideas with colleagues or to grab a coffee or have lunch together. If the workplace culture leans towards individual work, see what you can achieve with small personal choices.

Many things can make a person feel excluded. These include age, gender, personal background, language skills or interests. Exclusion is a complex psychological phenomenon; more than one person can experience a feeling of exclusion in the same situation but for different reasons. Having the courage to cross these imaginary borders and allowing diversity to show its strength is what fosters a sense of community and connection. If we don’t reach out to each other, we don’t even know what we are missing.

Organisational culture as a tool to prevent loneliness

Loneliness has three thematic dimensions: individual, community and society. While we all can reflect on our actions and ways of  considering and involving others, it is equally important to examine the workplace culture at managerial level. An open, communal and supportive work culture lowers the threshold to participate and share ideas. A psychologically safe workplace atmosphere where everyone is allowed to be heard and have their say can reduce the feeling of loneliness.

Things to consider in the workplace:

- How do the premises support a sense of connection and doing things together?

- Do workplace structures and schedules allow time for taking breaks together or for other informal meetings?

- How do we welcome new employees? Do we provide adequate induction training?

- How do we respond to issues raised by employees?

Structures that build a sense of community can help each employee reach out to others and work towards common goals.

Experienced loneliness may cause a variety of symptoms. If your experiences of loneliness cause anxiety or reduce your capacity to cope at work, it is advisable to seek professional help. Auntie, for example, offers discussion packages such as Feeling Down, which can help you restore focus on what’s good in everyday life and strengthen your connection with others.

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