April 1, 2023

Workstation: Workstation: Building a Bridge to a Lonely Colleague

Research into loneliness has tended to focus on people’s private lives and on groups that may be prone to it, like the elderly. But some researchers have done studies on workplace loneliness, and have found that it hurts not only individuals but organizations as a whole.

Loneliness is a perception of isolation or estrangement from others, says Sigal G. Barsade, a management professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. It arises from “the critical human need to belong,” she says.

Loneliness is not the same as solitude, which can be a positive and welcome state. Nor is it synonymous with depression, although the two may be correlated, says Sarah Wright, a senior lecturer in organizational leadership at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. With loneliness, there is a need to rid oneself of distress “by integrating into new relationships,” she explained in an e-mail. “With depression, there is a drive to surrender to it.”

Because it is part of the human condition, loneliness is often regarded as a personal problem. But managers may need to view it as an organizational issue as well, according to research by Professor Barsade and Hakan Ozcelik, an associate business professor at California State University, Sacramento.

In a recent study of more than 650 workers, the two researchers found that loneliness — as reported both by the sufferer and his or her co-workers — reduces an employee’s productivity. This was true on both individual and team-oriented tasks.

Just look at what loneliness can do to a person, and you’ll see why. “Loneliness tends to distort social cognition and influences an individual’s interpersonal behavior, resulting in increased hostility, negativity, depressed mood, increased anxiety, lack of perceived control and decreased cooperativeness,” Dr. Wright says.

Professor Barsade is investigating whether loneliness may also be “contagious,” the way she has found emotions like anger and happiness to be in the workplace.

So what to do? First, realize that “loneliness is an emotion, and we should listen to it,” Dr. Ozcelik said.

Those trying to combat loneliness should remember that “it is actually about the quality of relationships and not the quantity,” Professor Barsade said.

JUST one close relationship with a colleague can make all the difference. The recent economic downturn may well have been a factor in heightening feelings of workplace loneliness, said Nancy S. Molitor, a public education coordinator for the American Psychological Association and a clinical psychologist in private practice in Wilmette, Ill.

Even among people who have kept their jobs, she said, office layoffs may mean a loss of contact with someone “who wasn’t just a co-worker, but a friend.”

To fight loneliness, employers don’t necessarily want to organize more parties, Dr. Ozcelik said. “Being lonely in the middle of a crowd can be exhausting,” he said. “Creating more distractions won’t help those people.”

Helping a colleague, or yourself, out of loneliness, may involve such simple steps as taking the time for a chat, asking for input on a project, or offering an invitation to coffee or lunch.

And perhaps managers shouldn’t feel so irritated by the occasional raucous coffee break or a lingering conversation about last night’s game or TV show. These types of encounters may promote bonding that causes people to work harder.

But sometimes loneliness can be built into the fabric of an organization. An atmosphere of distrust, suspicion and fear can cause workers to feel estranged from one another, Dr. Wright has written.

And even without those elements, the way that work is structured can either inhibit or enhance a sense of community, Professor Barsade said.

“Managers need to be thoughtful about making sure that their teams and team members are interpersonally engaged and connected to each other,” she said. “We know that’s a mechanism through which good work gets done.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=c529b1797671589aa67a53876fd706bf