Financial Times - When loneliness at work drives employees to quit their jobs

Financial Times - When loneliness at work drives employees to quit their jobs

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June 8, 2017. Emma Jacobs.

Management owe it to staff to treat isolation as a problem that affects business.

As an analyst in a bulge-bracket bank in the City of London, Steve knew that he was in for long hours spent churning through spreadsheets. What he was not prepared for, at a global bank that hires thousands of people, was loneliness.

The environment, says the 27-year-old, who prefers not to use his real name, was “toxic”. There was “rarely any support for new joiners, no mentorship” in the business.

His youth was a factor. In his early 20s, being on a team with experienced professionals was “intimidating”. A snide comment from a manager would immediately make him feel “very small”.

Over time, his “self-esteem [took] a nosedive” and he started to isolate himself. “Better to not say a word if the slightest murmur could lead to embarrassment,” he says. That affected his performance at work and meant that he further cordoned himself off.

2011 study from California State University and the Wharton School confirms what Steve knew: that management should not treat loneliness as a private problem but rather one that affects the business.

“An employee’s work loneliness triggers emotional withdrawal from their organisation,” the study says. “The results also show that co-workers can recognise this loneliness and see it hindering team member effectiveness.”

Steve felt not only “lonely but increasingly helpless”. The people who manned the corporate employee assistance phones were based in another city and were disconnected from the main business. After four years, he decided to leave and work for a fintech start-up.

He has since realised, through talking to his former colleagues, that he was far from alone in feeling lonely at work. Books have started to appear on loneliness in the past decade, such as Emily White’s Lonely: A Memoir; Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City; and, more academically, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection by John Cacioppo, the director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience.

In the UK, the Campaign to End Loneliness is working to influence public policy on isolation and to develop an evidence base, while the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, launched in the wake of the Labour MP’s murder in 2016, continues her activism in this area.

It is important to distinguish between subjective loneliness and objective isolation, says Prof Cacioppo, who has been studying the causes and effects of loneliness for more than 20 years. Loneliness is a “lack or loss of companionship [which] happens when we have a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want”, according to the Campaign to End Loneliness.

This means, says Prof Cacioppo, that one can feel socially isolated even when around friends, family and crowds — or co-workers. As Steve’s experience shows, you may be surrounded by hundreds or thousands of colleagues yet still feel lonely.

Despite their prevalence, social media are making people feel disconnected — “alone together”, in the words of Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and professor at MIT. “We think constant connection [through smartphones and email] will make us feel less lonely,” she writes. “The opposite is true.”

A forthcoming paper, co-authored by Prof Cacioppo, suggests that the relationship with technology is more complex. The internet may be used to enhance existing relationships and forge social connections but may also be a way of escaping “the social world” and thus increasing loneliness.

Adam Grant, professor of management and psychology at Wharton, has observed Americans are less likely to foster friendships at work, because they do not envisage sticking around. “We don’t invest in the same way. We view co-workers as transitory ties, greeting them with arms-length civility.”

While the popular expression may be that “it’s lonely at the top”, researchers have found that it can be pretty lonely at the bottom. A paper published in the scientific journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes in 2015 found that employees with low levels of autonomy and power felt lonely. Adam Waytz, a psychologist at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, explains in the paper that “having power reduces the need to belong”. Power confers access to resources that give people the sense that they could easily affiliate with others and find connection regardless of whether or not this is actually the case, he says.

Virtual working is a more obvious cause of loneliness. Rachel, who worked until recently in corporate communications at a financial services company headquartered in New York, was the only one in her department based in the UK. “In the beginning I loved it,” says Rachel, who also prefers to remain anonymous. She was proud of being a pioneer and liked having a global role.

But ultimately she became enveloped by loneliness. “I didn’t see anyone — my team were based in New York. I missed the office banter. On Fridays they would say they were going for a drink and I felt excluded.” Rachel felt that she was “out of sight, out of mind”.

Every time the phone rang she turned into a chatterbox, desperate for contact. She had to remind herself to end the conversation before she pummelled the caller with her enthusiasm. When her son came home from school, “I would hug him like I hadn’t seen him for weeks.” After it took its toll on her health and productivity, she left the job.

In retrospect, she believes that her team should have made more effort to include her. “They could have created more opportunities for banter and discussions offline,” perhaps by building five minutes of conversation into a team conference call.

Shefaly Yogendra, a governance and risk consultant, also experienced virtual-office loneliness, this time working from home with teams in Asia and California. “Office banter is a social lubricant. It humanises people and makes them seem not like robots,” she says. “There is an existential quality to loneliness.” For her, the solution was not to find throngs of co-workers but to “calm the monkey mind” through yoga.

Sometimes working alone at home can be the answer to loneliness. Deborah Parietti, founder of Red Beetle Travelling Food, an ecommerce business selling Italian produce, says that she feels less lonely now than she did working in marketing for an employer.

“It felt so silly to feel lonely when surrounded by loads of people. It’s hard to talk to a boss and say, ‘I feel lonely.’ It’s not tangible. Not something you can explain very well. It’s not an easy conversation to have.”

Today, while she is often alone, she feels she has the power to make changes if loneliness creeps in. “When I was in a workplace, it made me unhappy and [I] couldn’t switch off from that . . . discomfort and sadness. Now loneliness is a catalyst. I can go and meet people.”

Even chief executives are vulnerable

António Horta-Osório, the chief executive of Lloyds bank, was signed off work for stress and told the Financial Times: “As a CEO these positions are quite lonely, so sometimes there are several things you cannot share with your team, because you have to motivate them. You don’t want your employees to have doubts about your leadership.”

A report on loneliness, co-authored by Professor Adam Waytz of Kellogg School of Management, found high-ranking employees were vulnerable to loneliness because they often have sole responsibility for laying off employees; reducing resources in budget restructurings; and “increasing organisational profit at a potential cost to the environment or to society”.

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