Last updated: 25 September 2017
Think loneliness is just a state of mind? Think again.
Loneliness can cause serious physical and psychological damage – especially if you’re a digital nomad or a remote worker. It can play havoc with a person’s quality of life. But what’s even worse, it can actually shorten their life too.
Recent research highlights how certain lifestyle factors can reduce someone’s life expectancy by quite significant amounts.
Obesity by 20%, drinking by 30%, and smoking by 50%. But loneliness has the potential to reduce life expectancy by an astonishing 70%.
It’s also been suggested that loneliness increases the likelihood of stroke or coronary heart disease by as much as 30%.
Sadly, its effects don’t end there.
Loneliness is more than just the sense of being a bit down because of the lack of company. In fact, it has been shown to register in the brain as physical pain.
It actually “hurts” to be alone or to be socially excluded. And when people feel lonely or excluded, their work rate suffers.
They tend to disengage, perhaps because they feel so alone, isolated, or undervalued. Their disengagement can be extremely costly for businesses too, resulting in up to 50% more accidents, nearly 40% higher absenteeism, a sharp dip in profitability of about 16%, and a substantial drop in share price if the situation remains unchecked.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. As soon as we’re able to connect with other people in a social context, everything improves.
Being able to mix with others and feel like part of a community strengthens our immune system, lifts us out of depression, reduces stress and anxiety, and contributes to a longer and healthier life overall.
But with the way we work changing so rapidly, loneliness looks set to become a bigger issue.
Especially for anyone working in a non-traditional environment, such as digital nomads, remote workers and home-based workers.
Social isolation can lead to feelings of loneliness, which can be compounded by the amount of work they undertake. If someone is inundated with work and they don’t have the time to socialize, you can imagine how this exacerbates the problem.
So what can be done to tackle the issue?
Here are a few ways leaders and managers can become more mindful of employees at risk of loneliness. These will not only benefit your employees – but your business’s productivity too.
1. Make Creating A Collaborative Environment A Priority
Because of the nature of work these days, you might not have an office to collaborate in. However, you can still arrange daily team meetings online that will get everyone involved and help build a team spirit.
You can also set up internal chat systems. The Slack app is great for keeping everyone in the loop, for starting chat channels relevant to specific projects, and for creating a real-time discussion.
If you find Skype to be unreliable, try Zoom instead for video and web conferencing. For online whiteboards, use RealTime boards. This is ideal for mapping out projects and it works just like a normal whiteboard. But it’s online, so everyone can access it whenever and wherever they need to.
2. Set Boundaries & Expectations For Different Time Zones
It’s likely that the people you work with are spread around the globe, meaning they work in different time zones. It’s important to keep that in mind. What’s morning or the middle of the day for you could be the early hours of the morning for them.
Nowadays you can contact people at any time of the day or night. That’s good in one sense, because it means you can get your thoughts or ideas sent with a certain amount of expediency.
What’s not so good is if the other person feels obliged to respond, whether it’s 11 pm or 2 o’clock in the morning. Meaning as a leader or manager, it’s important to set boundaries and expectations.
Getting this sorted will help everyone know exactly what’s expected of them, and it will also go a long way toward reducing excess stress and exhaustion.
3. Acknowledge Team Achievements, Milestones And Birthdays
At the very least, a good leader should be willing to get in touch with individuals to thank them for their contributions and celebrate milestones when appropriate.
When you work in the same location, it’s easy to go out after work for a drink or just walk up to someone and wish them a happy birthday or anniversary.
Likewise you can also congratulate a team member on job well done in person. But it’s a whole other ball game when your colleagues work remotely.
What can you do? How about starting a Slack channel that’s just for acknowledgements? You could make a point of mentioning these things during team meetings. Perhaps one of the team could be responsible for collating all the information so nothing gets missed.
4. Schedule One-On-One Meetings To Stay Connected
When it comes to finding out how your team members are feeling, you can’t beat having a good chat.
For example, is their workload manageable?
Have they got all the tools they need to do the job?
Is there one part of their job that’s taking up too much of their time?
Do they need more training or help with the type of work they’re taking on?
Some people will be ready and willing to let you know when problems arise, but others will not. They’ll just keep on working, trying to do what’s asked of them, even when they haven’t got the time, the tools or the expertise.
So you have to actually come right out and ask them in order to be able to give them the support and encouragement they require.
When you’re working in the same office, it’s much easier to do this and to spot when someone is stressed out or putting in the long hours.
But when teams work remotely, and you only really speak when discussing a project, the personal chats have a tendency to fall by the wayside.
So your job as a leader or manager is ensure that you ask these kind of questions so your team is being adequately supported.
5. Devise Processes That Enable Employees To Take Time Off
It can be tricky with remote teams for individuals to take leave or holiday time.
There isn’t always someone available who can cover for the work they do. This is especially true when the people who handle different arms of the business might be scattered across the globe and are not even aware of what the other one is responsible for.
As a result, people don’t take leave in the traditional sense of the word. They might take a day off here and there.
They might squeeze in a long weekend once or twice a year. But they’re afraid to take off any considerable amount of time because of the backlog it will create.
Or, if they do, they’ll end up working extra hours beforehand just to make sure everything’s in place while they’re away.
This causes more problems than it resolves. They spend a lot time and energy preparing to take time off. That’s extra work on top of what they normally do, adding to their stress levels just so things tick over smoothly while they’re away.
What’s more: because they don’t always take as much time off as they should, they don’t allow themselves the chance to recharge their batteries.
You want them to be happy and productive members of your team, but unless they’re able to replenish their energy reserves, and put work on the back burner for a little while, they can’t be.
One way around this is to encourage people to document processes relevant to their job so other people can take over as necessary. This might be a tedious task, but it can pay dividends by helping to take the weight off the shoulders of team members who happen to be on holiday.
Make sure they know that things will continue to operate normally while they’re away, so they can relax, forget about work, and refresh themselves mentally and physically. They’ll appreciate the fact that you’re thinking about their welfare and will feel like part of the organization. In other words, like they’re not on their own.
Another option is to train team members in different areas of the business. It keeps things flowing smoothly, but also makes team members feel like they’re even more important cogs in the wheel who can offer a variety of skills.
6. Encourage Working From Co-Working Spaces
Co-working spaces are great for meeting location independent workers and digital nomads. It can make a nice change for team members to work alongside other people occasionally, especially if they’ve been stuck at home or working elsewhere in isolation for any length of time.
Working alongside other people, even if those other people are working on different projects, can provide stimulus and motivation. It also gives team members the chance to connect with other human beings which will definitely help to get rid of those feelings of loneliness.
There are a lot of misconceptions about digital nomads and people who work remotely or from home. Forget the images you see online of people sitting in a deck chair with a laptop on the beach, one hand poised above the mouse while the other cradles a tropical drink. Working remotely, isn’t always like this.
They need power to plug in their various electrical devices and chargers. They need facilities for toilet breaks and occasional refreshment. They need somewhere clean and dry where they can work without worrying about the weather, or about getting sand in their keyboard, or about spilling a Mai Tai on their laptop.
There’s no reason why any member of your team should be left feeling isolated or alone. Here are some additional things you can suggest that will help them to keep in touch with other human beings on a daily basis and avoid loneliness.
- Make Phone Calls
Advise your team members to start the day making any phone calls that need to be made. It’s an efficient and productive way to kick things off, and it will make them feel like they’ve been in touch with others in the outside world.
- Attend Business Events
Are there any conferences near where your team members live related to the work they do? Urge them to get a ticket and attend the events. They’ll meet other people who do what they do and might also pick up some useful tips or resources.
- Work Outside
Remind your remote workers that “where” they work isn’t as important as getting their work done. They should realize that working the way they do gives them the freedom to work outside if it’s a nice day. Or to work in a local café to get a change of scenery. A change is as good as a rest, and working in different environments might help inject a bit of variety into their daily routines.
- Exploit The Power Of Exercise
If possible, encourage team members to get involved in group sports. Any kind of exercise will do them good, because exercise releases endorphins, the ‘feel-good’ chemicals that interact with the brain to reduce the perception of pain. Participation in sports means they’ll get to interact with other people, which will also make them feel good.
A Few Final Words
As remote working becomes increasingly popular, it’s important that leaders ensure employees are being adequately supported. This support will not only go a long way in making employees feel valued, but if the latest research is anything to go by, the benefits of doing so will be evident throughout your entire business…