It’s an epidemic: loneliness! And it’s felt around the globe! It’s not determined by the actual number of friends or social connections, but rather an absence of meaningful relationships.
In a recent study of some 20,000 Americans by health insurance company, Cigna, forty-seven percent of the respondents said they often felt alone or left out. Forty-one percent of Britons say television, or a pet is their main source of company. In Japan, a government study found that more than half-a-million people spend at least six months in their home without outside contact. And sadly, Generation Z members (ages 18-22) and Millennials (23-37) scored the highest for loneliness. For these two groups, despite digital connections, social media often portrays a curated life that doesn’t compare to their real world. Inadequacy runs rampant.
Why care? Loneliness makes people sick. In the book I am currently writing, Burnout to Breakthrough, Building Resilience to Refuel Recharge and Reclaim What Matters, I share a Brigham Young University study found that loneliness shortens a person’s life by 15 years. Without an emotional support network or feeling connected, unhealthy habits creep in, along with possible substance abuse, a sedentary life without exercise, and isolation. The latter can leave one at danger in case of an emergency. Loneliness triggers the release of stress hormones that can be dangerous if exposed over long periods.
This short article can only begin to scratch the surface of what one can do in the face of this epidemic. Let me offer three ways to connect for yourself and then, three ways a leader can help her team member connect.
How to help yourself connect:
Follow the advice of Cal Newport, professor of Computer Science at Georgetown and author of Digital Minimalism. Try a 30-day fast from your smart phone. This means eliminating all but ESSENTIAL apps, notifications, rings and dings. Refrain from looking on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and whatever current social pages you scroll. Yes—and put that phone FAR away at night.
Make it a point to greet every stranger you pass in your walk or run. Just smile, say good morning, whatever! I have started doing this. It’s a heart warmer to see people face’s light up. Dogs want to have their heads scratched and where else can I find a two-month old puppy that the owners let me hold and snuggle? If you are very adventurous, watch for groups or families who are trying to get one of their party to take a picture. Offer to take the picture so no one is left out. You’ll be rewarded AND feel connected.
Invite one person from work, your neighborhood, your school to come share a meal with you. Nothing fancy. When they look surprised, let them know that it’s time you share more than space on this earth. This take courage but—lead with your heart. After all, courage is from the French word for heart.
How to help your team connect:
The next time two or more team members are gathered with you, before you start the meeting, suggest that it's time to connect on more meaningful levels and not just the clear-cut business agenda. Share something personal about yourself. Perhaps a fond memory as a child. Or one of your most embarrassing moments… the funnier it is, the better. Invite whomever would like to speak next. Ask one of them to come up with a “here’s what you don't know about me” statement for the next gathering. It’ll take a while to loosen the soil but aha, the garden you are planting can be wonderful.
Design space for team members to sit together in a casual setting. It might be in the coffee room. Teachers have lounges for a reason, but lounges have disappeared in most other environments. Make sure the environment is pleasant and not battleship gray!
Practice gratitude. Tell each team member something you have noticed and appreciated about them, whether it’s going the extra mile or staying the course although it’s tough.
This lets them know that YOU know and connects on a personal level.
“Live in fragments no longer. Only connect” -E.M. Forester
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