We are experiencing an epidemic of loneliness that is affecting our health and happiness. And, it is affecting our work. How can you alleviate the effects of loneliness on your team? Neuroscience says it may be simpler than you think.

Look at all the lonely people

Loneliness in the U.S. has doubled over the past 50 years. A survey from health services company Cigna showed that 46% of U.S. adults sometimes or always feel socially isolated, and 54% said they feel that no one knows them well. Separate studies show feelings of loneliness increasing around the world.

Loneliness has been shown to increase the likelihood of depression and other mental illnesses. Recently, researchers observed that the immune systems of lonely people display fewer antiviral compounds and more inflammation, a condition linked to a myriad of negative health outcomes, from cancer and heart disease to dementia. A meta-analysis by researchers at Brigham Young University showed that social isolation resulted in a 50% increase in premature death.

Serious effects on performance

Loneliness is unfortunate, yes. But what does it have to do with work? It turns out social isolation is bad for the bottom line, too. Loneliness reduces our ability to perform tasks, limits creativity, and reduces reasoning and decision making. 

Even worse, socially isolated team members are less likely to collaborate with others and could even hinder team cohesion. Even if these employees seek to work with others, research shows that their colleagues are likely to perceive them as unapproachable and uncommitted to the organization. We know that teamwork is essential to success. If team members interact with each other in a positive way and are able to relate to one another, then they often perform much better than teams that don’t. But loneliness could be a major barrier to building high-performing teams. 

Exercise your brain like a muscle

The social brain network is a complex system that governs our social interactions. Neuroscience research has shown that the size and integrity of various components of the social brain network determine our ability to form and maintain connections with others.

The social brain network is weakened by isolation. Laboratory mice that were raised in an enriched environment and subsequently isolated for 30 days displayed nerve damage in parts of their brain. Other animal studies have shown isolation increases aggressiveness towards others, and creates persistent fear and hypersensitivity to threats. Social isolation reduces empathy, compassion and perspective-taking, creating obvious obstacles to building the psychological safety essential to effective teams.

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Why we feel alone, even when we’re together

What is to blame for all these lonely people? Although there are many factors to consider, technology is one of the main drivers of isolation at work.

Technology has completely changed how we work. “Work” once simply meant time spent in the office, but technology and the gig economy have made the office obsolete. An international study revealed that 63% of employers now allow employees to work from home, 70% of employees work remotely at least once a week, and 53% work remotely for more than half of the week. The biggest challenge for remote workers? Loneliness.

The problem isn’t limited to remote workers. Technology can produce feelings of isolation even in busy offices – the 2018 Global Work Connectivity Study showed that workers spend almost 50% of each day communicating digitally rather than in-person, and that more than half felt lonely as a result.

How can you stop loneliness from impacting team performance?

Fortunately, turning social isolation into an atmosphere of trust and safety may be easier than you think. Studies show that the social brain network is plastic – that it can be developed, and can actually increase in size, with practice.

What does that look like? 

1. Connect in the real world

Promote a team culture of taking communication offline. Encourage small interactions in the breakroom and around the watercooler, and make time at the beginning of phone calls and meetings to check in with coworkers. Embrace the occasional, welcome physical touch (a handshake will do). Studies show that these interactions — even taking a moment to share the hottest office gossip — trigger the release of oxytocin, a powerful neuropeptide that is key to social attachment and building trust between individuals

2. Take care of remote workers

Ensure remote workers have access to video conferencing for team meetings, which has been shown to increase social bonding over audio- or text-only communication. If your budget allows, encourage remote workers to travel periodically to interact with their teams in-person.

3. Get out once in a while

Finally, there is a practical limit to how much social bonding your team will experience in an office setting. Sponsor coffee, lunch or buy the first round at your next team happy hour. Your team will be better, and less lonely, for it.

Why don't more teams achieve peak performance?

Download Unlock the Extraordinary, our guide to unlocking team effectiveness, to find out!

Chris Cotteta
AIIR Consulting

AIIR Consulting is a global leadership development consultancy dedicated to increasing the effectiveness and performance of leaders and their organizations. Through the strategic integration of coaching and technology, AIIR Consulting brings agile leadership development to today’s connected leader.

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