Isolated – The High Cost of Loneliness and What You Can Do

Image Credit: Team America World Police (2004) – IMDb. No copyright infringement is intended.

“Look at all the lonely people,” remarked the Beatles, wondering where do they all come from? “My shadow’s the only one who walks beside me” sang Green Day. Elvis Presley crooned that he was so lonesome he could die. Britney Spears performed “my loneliness is killing me,” and Whitesnake belted out “Here I go again on my own!”

Perhaps because of its enduring poetic attraction, loneliness is generally regarded as a sad, but transient, state. Everyone goes through it at some stage and it’s not really something to worry about because it will eventually pass. This prevailing view is starkly at odds with the opinions held by scientists – psychologists, neuroscientists, geneticists, epidemiologists and physicians – who study the condition. To them, loneliness is a killer of epic proportions. It is the cause of widespread individual misery and massive social and economic cost.

Even before the pandemic, loneliness was considered a problem in the United States and around the world. However, the pandemic has made it much worse. Loneliness can be a risk factor in a range of health issues, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and domestic abuse – all problems that are increasing as we continue to remain isolated during the pandemic. Mounting research shows that loneliness is a serious issue, and scientists have found that social isolation and loneliness are associated with a 29% increased risk of heart attack and 32% greater risk of stroke. With remote work continuing to increase, we must become hyper-aware of this situation. According to The Atlantic“switching to Zoom forever might be convenient, but it’s a recipe for loneliness and increased stress.”  

“Loneliness is not the absence of people but the absence of like-minded people.”
― Alistair Abram Akrofi-Mantey

Loneliness Epidemic

The mind and body are not separate: what affects one, affects the other. Despite the productivity gains and cost savings associated with remote work, if it costs you your health, the price is too high. When short-term advantages come at the expense of remote workers’ emotional health – in particular, that remote work causes loneliness and isolation – ultimately engagement and productivity will suffer.

It is clear that loneliness and perceived social isolation is detrimental to our health. UCLA found that loneliness is linked to an increased risk of chronic disease and mortality. They also found that loneliness adversely affects inflammation and also negatively affects our mental health and stress levels. Another study found a reciprocal relationship between loneliness and depression, meaning that increased loneliness can be a significant factor contributing to severe depression. It may even be linked to an increased risk of dementia. The restrictions by governments around the world are not only causing massive economic damage, dissolution of fundamental rights, and food shortages, they are also creating a global mental health crisis through the destruction of our inherently social nature.

“All these people moving through life, all around me, and no one, not a single person,

knows what I’m going through.”

― Lee Thompson

7 Types of Loneliness

Getting a handle on loneliness is essential then, and while you may not have much control over the enforced restrictions in your geographical area and the remote work policies that can make the problem worse, there is plenty you can do to ease your own personal loneliness. The first step is to realise that loneliness isn’t a monolithic phenomenon. There are different flavours and shades of loneliness, each with its own particular cause. Diagnosing the exact one that’s afflicting you is the first step to reducing your suffering.

  1. Superficial Connections

The worst kind of loneliness is the kind you experience with other people. It’s the feeling that, even though someone is right next to you, in terms of connection and understanding they may as well be on the other side of the world. You feel isolated and unseen even though you’re supposed to be friends. Trying to keep up appearances is a signal of decay on the inside. Beware of shallow living in yourself and in others. It is only in the depths that life can thrive. To be happy, we need intimate bonds. We need to be able to confide. We need to feel like we belong. We need to be able to get and give support. In fact, strong relationships are key – perhaps the key – to a happy life.

  1. Situational Change

Not all loneliness is necessarily bad (though it’s never really much fun). Some loneliness is temporary and a sign of personal growth. Perhaps you have moved to a new city or recently changed jobs. When we wipe the slate clean with a big change, it can cause us to feel isolated and alone in the experience. However, it is in these moments where we have to dig deep and step outside our comfort zone that we do our best learning and growing.

  1. Animal Connection

Many people have a deep need to connect with animals. If this rings true for you, you can be sustained by these relationships in a way that human relationships cannot replace. If you have always been surrounded by animals and you suddenly find yourself unable to care for a pet, your loneliness could be stemming from your need to connect with the animal world. Perhaps you grew up surrounded by nature and then moved to the concrete jungle. It is in our very DNA to long for a connection with the natural world more generally.

  1. Outside the Box

Outside-the-box loneliness comes about when you feel out of touch not just with a particular person, but with a whole social scene. When you don’t belong in the environment that you are in, you feel increasingly isolated as an outcast. Some of us think holding on makes us strong, but often it is letting go. If you don’t like the scene you’re in, if you’re unhappy, if you’re lonely, move. If you don’t feel that things are happening, change your scene. You are the artist. You hold the paintbrush, so paint a new backdrop.

  1. Intimate Solitude

Human beings are social creatures, and many of us crave deeply intimate relationships (that are non-romantic in nature). We want to be surrounded by people who get us, people who love us unconditionally, and people who cheer us on when things are tough. So much of the pain of loneliness is to do with concealment, with feeling compelled to hide our vulnerability. We tuck ugliness away and cover up scars as if they are literally repulsive. But why hide? What’s so shameful about wanting, about desire, about having failed to achieve satisfaction, about experiencing unhappiness? When you feel you can’t simply be you and you don’t have a deep emotional connection at home, you will feel increasingly lonely.

  1. Growth and Separation

You can become incredibly lonely when you grow apart from people who were once important to you. Although this is a natural process, it’s a painful one. We watch our friends and loved ones move in different directions while we are also forced to pull away toward our own fulfillment of our life’s purpose. However, a season of loneliness and isolation is when the caterpillar gets its wings. 

  1. Lacking Romance

Even if you have plenty of family and friends, you may feel lonely because you don’t have the intimate connection of a romantic partner. Or maybe you have a partner, but you don’t feel a deep connection to that person. During the worst of the country’s coronavirus restrictions last year, the Dutch government advised single citizens to get themselves a “sex buddy” to bubble up with to avert the worst of lockdown loneliness. Lack of intimacy is incredibly painful and the most common type of loneliness. So often, we don’t see the beauty in ourselves. If we keep observing our reflection in the distorted mirrors of bad relationships, we start believing we are ugly and unlovable. The flaws aren’t in how we look, but in whose eyes we’re seeing ourselves through.

Awareness is the beginning of change. It’s important to identify why you are feeling lonely, because only then can you see how you can address it. Once you’ve pinpointed the cause of your loneliness you’ll be much better placed to take concrete steps to improve the situation, be that more weekend hikes, a moving van, or joining an activity or club whose members feel more aligned with your true identity. You need to be courageous to live the life you want. Loneliness is a major factor in unhappiness, so it’s an important area to tackle if you are working on making yourself happier.

“Hanging with people who make you feel unappreciated, for the mere sake of appearing to be popular, is the loneliest place to be.”
― Ellen J. Barrier

Connection is Immune Protection

Of course, being alone and being lonely are two different things. Loneliness feels draining, distracting, and upsetting. Desired solitude feels peaceful, creative, and restorative. According to The Harvard Gazette, the Harvard Study of Adult Development revealed that close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. Social connections are the antidote to loneliness and key predictors of health, happiness, and longevity.

Lacking the ability to connect in the workplace can cause loneliness and negative work outcomes. According to a recent study published in the Harvard Business Review, workers who experienced higher levels of loneliness also reported fewer promotions, less job satisfaction, and a greater likelihood for frequently changing jobs. Moreover, the study illuminated that lawyers, doctors, and engineers were the occupations reporting the highest levels of loneliness. Since a large proportion of time is spent at work, individuals who are dissatisfied with their current levels of social support and connectedness at work may have deep feelings of loneliness.

“Nobody enjoys the company of others as intensely as someone

who usually avoids the company of others.”

― Mokokoma Mokhonoana

4 Strategies to Engage Remote Workers

As the shift to remote work environments has become more prevalent than ever before, workplace loneliness and feeling disconnected from coworkers are also becoming increasingly common. According to a recent Prosper Insights & Analytics Survey, 26.5% of adults say that working from home during the pandemic has made them more lonely. Loneliness leads to isolation, which then leads to burnout and disengagement on the job. Here are four strategies that may help managers engage their virtual workers:

  1. Ongoing Recognition

Recognition helps us to feel valued and appreciated. It can prevent team members from feeling invisible, isolated, or underappreciated – feelings that impact remote employee retention.

  1. Clear Channels of Communication

Remote workers are often left out of the loop simply because they’re not physically present. Everyone needs clear expectations for the job and access to information. They need to know where to go, who to talk to, and how to initiate conversations or requests.

  1. Regular Check-ins

Prioritising daily check-ins lets remote employees know they’re a critical part of the team. It also ensures that they stay aligned and accountable as things change. 

  1. Challenging Assignments

Remote workers can often feel disconnected. Even worse is the feeling that they are merely cogs in a machine, called on to do specific tasks without being given any attention in the process. The key is to make them feel valued, not forgotten, by assigning more responsibility that gives them purpose and adds meaning to their work and career development.

“Why am I so anxious? And then it hits me. I’m not anxious, I’m lonely.

And I’m lonely in some horribly deep way and for a flash of an instant, I can see just how lonely,

and how deep this feeling runs. And it scares the shit out of me to be so lonely

because it seems catastrophic – seeing the car just as it hits you.”

― Augusten Burroughs

Workplace Loneliness - It's a Thing.

Loneliness is no longer just a symptom of social outcasts and rolling lockdown laws. In fact, it’s something many of us have felt throughout our careers. Do you remember that company where you just felt lonely, like no one really cared if you were there? While many of us were raised to respond to situations like these and shrug it off by saying, “Suck it up. Stop whining. Just do your job,” there’s something other than our emotions that we need to consider when it comes to feeling alone at work – research reveals that loneliness annihilates your job performance.

Research conducted by California State University surveyed 672 employees and their 114 supervisors across 143 work team units found that an employee’s work loneliness triggers emotional withdrawal from the organisation. They displayed an increase in surface acting and reduced commitment. The results also showed that co-workers can recognise this loneliness and see it hindering the team member’s effectiveness. When we see people who we think might feel lonely, our common response is to do the very thing those people need the least – just leave them alone. For some reason, we assume their loneliness must be a personal situation, better handled outside of the office. But, often, we are wrong. Loneliness in the workplace is an organisational issue that needs to be addressed both for the employees’ sake and that of the organisation. If you are lonely at work, what can you do?

Don’t assume they aren’t interested in you.

Often, people who feel lonely believe it’s because no one is interested in truly knowing them. That is a dangerous assumption. The most interesting people are, in fact, the most interested people. So, show some interest in other people and their ideas. Ask questions like, “can I get your perspective or advice on a project?” When you show interest in people’s hobbies, ideas, and work, they’ll often show interest in yours.

Go further afield

There is a possibility that the people you spend your entire day with simply want a break from thinking about their work. Step outside of your inner circle and spark conversations with people outside of your team – those who might see your world through a different lens. People who don’t live and work in your daily routine might find your work fascinating, as you might find theirs.

Don’t check out. Check in.

It can feel like the natural response to a stressful or undesirable social situation to check out and become less noticeable. However, this is the time to look around and see how you could make a difference in someone else’s day. What would your coworkers or team love? Reframe your mindset to pump every ounce of your energy into creating a result that is impossible to overlook.

“Loneliness is a sign you are in desperate need of yourself.”

— Rupi Kaur

Lonely at the Top?

Loneliness is no longer something we solely relegate to people who are sad or depressed. Loneliness is something that is often invisible to the eye and affects more people than we think. As you go about your day, look up and take a minute to talk with the person beside you. You could be helping in more ways than you can imagine. Loneliness is inevitable. In fact, the bigger your vision, the more loneliness you will face in your life because most people won’t think the same way you do, nor understand what you’re trying to accomplish. As a visionary game-changer, choose to embrace loneliness and use it to your advantage to do your best work.

The foundation for connecting with other people is the connection we have with ourselves. When we try to fit what we believe other people want to see, we only increase our loneliness. The leader who believes they have to display a façade, never letting their guard down, even around trusted companions, ends up lonely. The founder who brags about their company’s progress when, in reality, they need more help than they’d like to admit, feels empty inside. Loneliness lives inside the authenticity gap. It lurks in the separation between who you are and who you are presenting. It prevents even the people who truly care about you from getting close because you aren’t even sharing who you truly are.

“You can vanquish the demons only when you yourself are convinced of your own worth.”

― Adeline Yen Mah

Because You're Worth It.

Make time to understand your self-worth because, if you believe you are worth being seen, then you will spend less energy trying to act like someone you are not. If you pay attention during a conversation, you may actually feel when your façade is rising up: while you’re exaggerating your latest win; throwing shade on someone else’s comment; or subtly building a case for why you are better than other people. Become grounded in ways that remind you of who you truly are. Sit with your own thoughts rather than what you think other people want you to be. Knowing your own worth and grounding yourself will help you build those intimate, social, or collective relationships as the opportunities arise. Loneliness may seem natural as we social distance. However, forced solitude can also help us to realise what we’ve been repressing all along.

“I found a new and surprising strength inside of me, I found it at the bottom of a dark and lonely place, but I found it. And unfortunately, that’s where we find most of life’s treasures. After digging, toiling in the darkness and dire, we finally hit something concrete. I learned that rock bottom can actually be a springboard.”
― Cecelia Ahern

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