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What if? Employee loneliness in the workplace affects productivity. How to deal with it?

Employee loneliness in business can occur at any level in an organisation, and the effect on productivity is just as noteworthy at all levels too.

Whilst traditionally academic studies have used the elderly as a focus of research on loneliness (there being obvious qualitative data on the subject) and also the sphere of private lives in general (the implicit believe being that it’s a non-work issue), there have been a handful of studies in more recent years
conducted into workplace loneliness. Generally speaking, the results are found to be that whilst the obvious parties are affected (the lonely individual) the organisation also suffers as a direct consequence of the psychological effect(s) of this.

Loneliness can be described as the individual experiencing a sense of isolation/estrangement from other people/contact. The reason for this ‘response’ is that all humans, on some level, have a psychological requirement to ‘belong’ in some way.

Loneliness should not be confused with other similar but different conditions such as depression (where the loneliness is not wanted to be overcome by the individual, instead they end up resigning themselves to it), or solitude (where the state of being alone is not only desired, but a beneficial welcome break for the individual). Loneliness is however correlated with depression, as all too often a lonely individual may perceive the state as being non-changing and consequently, depression eventually ensues.

Due to its “private life” associations amongst many, loneliness is often treated as a personal issue and therefore a personal problem to solve; something that the business oughtn’t be concerned with. The problem with this attitude as that it really can and in practise, does affect business practises, according to leading academics at C.S.U., Sacramento.

The researchers found definitively that (of an observation group of over six hundred and fifty employees at a business), both the lonely employee and their co-workers reported a negative effect on productivity. This was the case for levels of productivity on individual work and team work.

Psychologists offer many explanations for this effect on work:
When an individual is suffering from loneliness, they generally have a somewhat distorted cognitive perception. Preoccupation over their state leads to less of a connection with the work in hand, and therefore less productivity. On top of this we, have a generally depressive mood, potential hostility to other colleagues as a result of their bad mood, and feelings of not being in control (which, again, manifest themselves as negative interpersonal interactions).

Further studies (which ought to give employers a real incentive to devote business time & money to tackle the issue) have shown that workplace loneliness is also potentially contagious, along with other more common and positive emotions/expressions, such as happiness and laughter. Loneliness should tell us something; to look at the quality of interpersonal relationships that we have, both at home and (in this case) in the workplace, and assess how they’re going and how they could be improved.
Studies have shown that just a single close relationship with a workplace colleague can make the difference between feeling workplace loneliness and not. With the state of today’s economy meaning that more jobs are “on the line” and threatened, workers are more likely than ever to experience workplace loneliness. This also means that workplace relationships are affected, resulting in established relationships being destroyed due to redundancies; people aren’t just losing co-workers, but real friends.

To combat this loneliness, experts don’t just advise employers to contrive more social events (this can actually exacerbate the problem, as a lonely individual in an explicitly “social” environment may be forced to face the stark reality of their state and feel the brunt of its effect in the most harsh of ways). Instead, it is advised that employees create time for simpler things like conversation, asking for the input of others (opinions, general commentary) even on individual work, and simply asking others to come for coffee/tea with them.

Employers, too, should tolerate and even encourage more of this social behaviour for the sake of the greater good; a loud conversation at break time over last night’s sports match isn’t going to hurt, in the grand scheme of things. It may even, according to this research, increase productivity.
The same research has also hypothesised that workplace loneliness can be in the very ‘fabric’ of an organisation. If the work is stressful, individualised and the workplace itself has feelings of distrust, fear and suspicion, there is ample stimuli for employees to develop detachment and loneliness.
In short, managers should be more trusting in their employees and foster social interaction where appropriate and possible.

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