The Workplace PIVOT column: All the Lonely People by Erica Lenti

Researchers from the University of Chicago found for those experiencing loneliness, there’s a 26 per cent increase in likelihood of premature death, and it can make people “irritable, depressed and self-centred.” (Illustration by Oliver Munday)

Features | From Pivot Magazine

All the lonely people

Canadian workers are more isolated than ever. And a lonely workforce isn’t just a public health concern, it’s bad for business.

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When Aristaea Clarkson decided in 2013 to leave a major accounting firm to start her own business, she thought she had covered all of the bases: the CPA had considered how the move would affect her finances, furnished a home office and planned how to build up her clientele. She felt she was ready.

But what Clarkson—like many remote workers—didn’t take into account was how starved she would be for social engagement. In those first few tax seasons, she found herself working 80-hour weeks, spent almost entirely at her desk. She would emerge only to cook dinner and eat with her husband and kids, or for quick jaunts to the supermarket for groceries. Conversation was rare. That’s why, when a repairman came to fix her air conditioning unit, Clarkson followed him around the house, making idle chit-chat—she was desperate to engage with someone, anyone. “I wasn’t bored with my work,” she says. “But when someone would come over, I realized I was so excited to talk to them.”

It’s a phenomenon some have dubbed “workplace loneliness.” The term might seem ill-fitting—so many of us, after all, don’t view work as a social event. But the way we work has changed: the latest survey from Statistics Canada, reported in 2010, pegs the number of people working from home at least part of the time at 1.7 million, and that doesn’t include those who are self-employed like Clarkson. (More recent numbers aren’t available.) Even at work, technology is reducing the amount of face-to-face time we have with each other, with many opting for chat on Google Hangouts or Slack in place of in-person meetings. Then there’s the growing gig economy, emboldening freelancers to go it alone; even if they choose co-working spaces, there’s little interaction with others.

Working at home meant little social interaction. When a repairman came, she trailed after him making idle chit chat.

These changes in workplace behaviour have a huge impact on our social engagement—they affect not just how good we are at our jobs but how well we feel overall.

Some say loneliness is emerging as a public health crisis. In February, researchers John and Stephanie Cacioppo from the University of Chicago tallied the effects: for those experiencing loneliness, there’s a 26 per cent increase in likelihood of premature death, and it can make people “irritable, depressed and self-centred.” Research from California State University, Sacramento also suggests that those who feel lonely at work often emotionally detach themselves from their employers and find their work less psychologically rewarding. Workplace loneliness, the researchers concluded, can have “a significant influence on employee work performance, both in direct tasks, as well as employee team member and team role effectiveness.”

That’s in part why, in May last year, corporate giant IBM—among one of the first to tout the benefits of telecommuting—asked thousands of its remote workers to return to their offices. Prior to that, Yahoo and Best Buy did the same. And Apple and Google won’t even entertain the idea of working from home. When workers feel lonely, it can affect their productivity—and that’s bad for business. Collaboration, these companies also suggest, begs for proximity. Or, as The Atlantic’s Jerry Useem put it in his report on the IBM decision: “collaboration requires communication. And the communications technology offering the fastest, cheapest, and highest-bandwidth connection is—for the moment, anyway—still the office.”

It’s not that working from home is a totally broken system. There’s still plenty arguing in its favour: these arrangements often get more out of employees—they wind up working for at least part of the time they would otherwise be commuting—and employers cut down on costly overhead. (And there’s always the comfort of working in your pyjamas.) Anecdotally, Clarkson says she’s never been happier working from home, even with those long work weeks alone. “I’m happy to be away from the workplace politics,” she adds.

26 per cent—the increase in likelihood of premature death for those experiencing loneliness.

Like most good things, it seems the key is balance. A solution can’t be found in extremes. Employers can’t tear down cubicles and expect their workers to sit at communal benches and play nice in the sandbox. They also can’t think that remote, often isolating work will make for better productivity, either.

Companies at the forefront of workplace innovation seem to be catching on: Michigan-based furniture company Steelcase recently redesigned its offices to contain both private, quiet spaces alongside an open-concept work environment. The combination, allowing workers a mix of both individual and collaborative workspace, provides the best of both worlds. 

Others are encouraging their peers to open up about their feelings of social isolation. Last year, Toronto graphic designer Marissa Korda started The Loneliness Project, a website where Canadians can share their experiences, in part to help break down the stigma of being lonely. The project goes beyond exploring just workplace loneliness, taking a deep dive into the world of social isolation. The idea is that talking about the problem is a first step in establishing that core balance—acknowledging that it must exist.

For telecommuters in particular, taking these steps may look a little different. It might mean working with a colleague or like-minded peer at a coffee shop, heading back to the office for a few days a week, or even participating in a group activity unrelated to work to get in those precious hours of human interaction. 

Clarkson still hasn’t quite figured out that balance. She phones up her accountant pals from the old firms when she’s in a crunch or needs advice—or when she’s craving a bit more social engagement. But the loneliness still creeps up. “It’s a work in progress,” she admits. “I think it always will be.”