The modern workplace can leave us isolated. If we’re isolated and lonely at work then our wellbeing, engagement and performance declines. Put simply, we’re not at our best.

To thrive at work we need to be connected with the people around us. That’s where leaders play a key role. Leaders can help the team create genuine connection, so that people feel understood by their colleagues and are able to thrive.

Here’s three steps leaders can take to improve the team’s Career Wellbeing to help their people thrive and overcome the risk of loneliness impacting their people.

The research tells us that loneliness is terrible for our health

Human beings have an innate need to belong, to be connected.

“The need to belong is a powerful, fundamental, and extremely pervasive motivation.”

Baumeister and Leary, The need to belong, 1995

Feeling lonely is a prompt to push us to connect with other people.

We can assume that being lonely is just about being physically isolated. The feeling of loneliness is actually when someone lacks meaningful connections.

Social isolation is bad for our physical, mental and emotional health. Isolation leads to increases in blood pressure, anxiety increases and rates of depression increase.

In 2015, researchers from Brigham Young University looked at multiple studies on loneliness and isolation. Their results from several hundred thousand people showed that social isolation resulted in a 50 percent increase in premature death.

Jed Magen, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Michigan State University, Loneliness is bad for your health, March 2018

Loneliness impacts the performance of teams and organizations

“Lonely employees were perceived by their coworkers to be less approachable and less committed to the organization…. loneliness is not simply the lonely employee’s problem; it influences colleagues as well as performance outcomes. Organizations need to take tackling the problem of loneliness seriously for both their employees’ sake as well as the sake of the organization itself.”

Sigal Barsade and Hakan Ozcelik, The Painful Cycle of Employee Loneliness, and How It Hurts Companies, Harvard Business Review 2018

At work we can have lots of people around us, but if the meaningful connection isn’t there then there can be loneliness.

Loneliness impact on the team

Loneliness has a significant impact on an individual’s performance, impacting the organization more broadly.

The American Psychiatric Association’s ‘Centre for Workplace Mental Health’ has found that loneliness can lead to:

  • diminished productivity,
  • emotional stress,
  • withdrawal from the team,
  • absence from work, and
  • weaker team performance.

If leaders want their people to thrive, then they need to ensure they have meaningful connections with their colleagues.

Career conversations compound impact

Professional development and career conversations are a powerful way to connect people in the workplace and help them to thrive. They connect people in the workplace, improving their Career Wellbeing, and by helping them to get more from their role – put simply, enjoy their job – compound the impact.

“People with high Career Wellbeing are more than twice as likely to be thriving in their lives overall.”

Tom Rath and Jim Harter, Wellbeing: The 5 essential elements, Gallup, 2010

Think about your own experience

When you’ve been in a job you don’t enjoy, how has that has impacted the rest of your life?

If we’re having conversations at work that help us to play to our strengths, and recognise the work that we’re doing, we are going to be encouraged and motivated. We will be enjoying our job and that will have impacts across every aspect of our lives.

Bring the team together to overcome loneliness

3 ways leaders can use the power of professional development and career conversations to help the team thrive

1. Make professional development a team sport

Individual development plans isolate us and give us time frames that demotivate. Leaders can take a different approach with professional development as a team sport. They can run a monthly team huddle to talk about professional development.

  • Each month have a team huddle.
  • Spend 10-15 minutes in the huddle.
  • Each team member chooses one strength they are going to work on.
  • Identifying a specific activity they are going to complete that will help them take a step forward and get a bit better.

The trick is to avoid a long drawn out discussion and avoid team members listing lots of different activities they will undertake. One is more than enough.

Example: Katherine is a fantastic presenter, she wants to get even better, she identifies her next step is to join the organization’s toastmasters group and go to a session this month.

2. Focus on strengths, rather than trying to develop weaknesses

The monthly team huddle focuses on strengths. There’s a reason for that. All too often development becomes about identifying perceived weaknesses and attempting to work on them. Focusing on strengths is a more effective strategy – it builds our confidence.

“Great managers… know that their job is not to arm each employee with a dispassionately accurate understanding of the limits of her strengths and the liabilities of her weaknesses but to reinforce her self-assurance. That’s why great managers focus on strengths.”

Marcus Buckingham, What Great Managers Do, Harvard Business Review March 2005

Conversations about our weaknesses can be demotivating for leaders and their people and stop the habit of professional development conversations in its tracks. These deficit conversations get us stuck in the mindset of what we’re not good at.

Not only that, negative conversations are a difficult place to build trust from and are often the conversations people avoid. Focus on strengths and have more conversations!

Example: Katherine has identified that presentation is a strength of hers. Alisha, her people leader, hears about an opportunity to MC the next all staff meeting. She reminds Katherine of her strengths and suggests that she puts herself forward. It’s a great opportunity to demonstrate her strength to other teams and is a chance to practice her skills in a slightly different setting.

3. Recognise (and praise) the great work around you

Seeking strengths can be applied in unstructured settings. Catching the people around you (whether you’re their boss or not) doing great work, and recognising them for it provides a great opportunity to shift mindsets and build relationships.

“Project teams with encouraging managers performed 31 percent better than teams whose managers were less positive and less open with praise.”

The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor

The trick is to deliver this feedback as quickly as possible and describe the behaviour and outcome as clearly as possible.

Example: Li is looking through recently completed client proposals for inspiration for a new proposal. He notices that Dara, his colleague, has recently completed a proposal which clearly articulates the client need and is structured in a way that links those needs to the solutions clearly. Rather than just mentally noting this or waiting until next week’s team meeting, Li picks up the phone to congratulate Dara for her excellent work. He provides specific feedback about her work and what difference that would make for the client.

Leaders can start today – connecting their people with conversations that matter to help them thrive

Loneliness is a very real problem in the workplace. Leaders need to be aware of the danger loneliness poses for their team and the steps they can take.

Leaders can talk to their team about professional and career development, focus on strengths and shift to a regular rhythm of identifying and recognising progress.

Leaders don’t need anyone’s help to do this. They can have a direct impact on their people’s wellbeing, engagement and performance.