The year is 1991. A bowl of Kix, with 2% milk, is consumed quickly in the morning. Judi Sheppard’s Jazzercise VHS workout tape is playing in the background. Jeff, a middle-aged accountant puts on his nicest turtleneck and heads to work. Jeff gets to work at 9:00am, works until 5:00pm and heads home. Once home, Jeff isn’t tempted to work anymore because he doesn’t have the capacity to do so. His work telephone, desk, word processor, manilla folders, and filing cabinet were located inside the office building. Jeff can turn on the TV, watch an episode of Seinfeld, relax with his family, and not feel obligated to do anything work related until tomorrow. Must have been nice.
For many back then, work was a single location. Today, work has pivoted from a place to a space. The technology shift from fixed communications to mobile communications has redefined how and where we work.
The never-offline and always-available work culture is today’s norm. For many people turning off work at 5:00pm is an antiquated practice. What’s typical for most is checking email prior to getting out of bed in the morning, shopping online while at work, exchanging texts with their managers after 8:00pm, and then starts the week’s projects on Sunday afternoons.
Today’s most beloved employers have been encouraging always-on work by including meditation spaces, nap rooms, foosball tables, and fully stocked kitchens inside the workplace to ensure employees never have to leave work. Most of these employers likely have good intentions to reduce loneliness by using these perks, but by keeping employees away from their communal relationships, and not helping to protect their personal time, have instead increased worker isolation.
Insert a global pandemic in 2020 and the lines between work and life vanish. Job board searches including the keyword “remote” climbed to all-time highs. Notable companies like Siemens, Twitter, Nielsen, Square, Nationwide Insurance, and Zillow all granted their employees the option to work from home permanently.
According to 2020 data, 61 percent of employers said that they expect their staff to be available outside of regular hours. More employees are working through lunch and logging on to tackle work tasks late into the night than ever before. In addition, 51 percent of employees reported symptoms of burnout in May 2020 (when many were forced to work from home) and by the end of June 2020, the figure had jumped to 69 percent.
Even before the arrival of the novel coronavirus our work-life balance was out of control as 42 percent of employees said they felt obligated to check in with work while vacationing, and more than one-fourth felt guilty for using all their vacation time.
All of this explains why our recent relationship between work and life is so tumultuous. And why we are having such a hard time establishing the necessary guardrails to protect our personal time and social connections outside of work. We are in a constant and ever-evolving battle to keep work at bay just long enough to maintain our crucial personal relationships while still qualifying for the next promotion.
Of course, working hard and for long hours isn’t bad. Until it leads to burnout.
Reaching burnout status is different for everyone and depends on your age, stage of life, personality, role and responsibilities, industry, etc. What doesn’t differ is how quickly burnout can turn an always-on, productive employee to an always-off, lonely employee.
A recent Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that 76 percent of employees experience burnout on the job at least sometimes, and 28 percent say they are burned out “very often” or “always” at work. According to the 2016 LinkedIn Censuswide Study, nearly half of American workers would forgo the corner-office job and a high salary to gain more flexibility in their schedules. And according to the Center of Generational Kinetics State of Gen Z® 2020 study, after salary, working-age Gen Z (16-24) is most attracted to a job that offers flexible scheduling (29 percent) and flexible hours is the top workplace benefit Gen Z is interested in.
Clearly “sometimes on” work is advantageous for worker wellbeing, as well as talent attraction and retention. Yet, despite a growing desire and need for better work-life balance, only 23 percent of companies feel that they are excelling in helping employees balance personal and professional life/work demands.
Organizations and leaders that expect employees to be always-on, prioritizing work over other important aspects of life—including the establishment and nurturing of relationships outside of work—run the risk of hindering worker health, productivity, and loyalty.
When workers can’t guard against work encroaching on their personal time, burnout and loneliness are around the corner.
What Is Loneliness?
Loneliness is the absence of connection.
Loneliness is a subjective feeling of the lack of trust, closeness, and affection of loved ones, close friends, and community. Loneliness is not defined by the lack of people because someone can still be lonely while surrounded by others. As a social species, humans require more than the mere presence of others. We require the presence of others so we can dream, strategize, and work towards a common goal together. We need to be in the presence of others who value, appreciate, and “see” us for everything we are. Loneliness is being seen through; connection is being seen as.
Unfortunately, being seen through is all too common in the workplace. Connection is traded for the convenience of moving fast. While seeing through someone greases the wheels of productivity, it leaves an organization feeling hollow, ultimately making employee disengagement and burnout a high probability.
Researchers Peplau and Perlman state, “Loneliness corresponds to a discrepancy between and individual’s preferred and actual social relations.” Everyone craves and needs connection, but the size of the discrepancy varies for each individual. The discrepancy for extroverts might be much larger than introverts. The discrepancy also varies across stages of life (single, married with kids, empty nesters, etc.). No matter the person or situation, humans seek belonging by securing strong relationships. The frequency of social contact or the quantity of relationships doesn’t matter as much as the quality of the connection.
It’s the quality of the connections between a person or group that defines loneliness.
Loneliness is also measured by one’s personal comfort levels of being isolated. Isolation is the physical state of being separated or apart from other people. Isolation decreases the opportunities to interact with other people thus increasing the risk of loneliness. However, you can be isolated without experiencing loneliness. For example, remote workers who are isolated from other team members can experience little to no loneliness while involved in a project that interests them.
The negative state of isolation is loneliness. The positive state of isolation is solitude. Solitude is a state of being alone without the emotions of loneliness. When we experience loneliness, we want to escape it as it is an unpleasant emotion. On the other hand, solitude is peaceful aloneness created by a state of voluntary isolation. Solitude can take many forms such as self-reflection, meditation, mindfulness exercises, or a quiet break from the demands of life. Solitude offers the opportunity to connect inwardly with oneself. Emotional wellbeing, clarity, creativity, and perspective are some of the benefits of intentional and healthy solitude.
Loneliness carries the unfortunate stigma of shame. Conversely, solitude is held in high esteem. However, solitude seems to be more and more elusive in today’s distraction-prone world. But when solitude is fought for and done right, it helps to strengthen the connection with ourselves which in turn equips us to connect more with others.
Ironically, solitude is insurance against loneliness. And as we’ll explore in this book, solitude is a leader’s first line of defense in protecting against loneliness in oneself and ultimately their team. Needless to say, workplace leaders are in a prime position to address loneliness.