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Stephen Liptrap is the president and CEO of Morneau Shepell.

Loneliness has long been an inspiration for the music, books and movies of our culture, but only recently has it been studied for its corrosive effects on culture itself. Health experts say loneliness is a public health crisis on par with obesity and contributes to heart disease, depression and other chronic illnesses. It’s such a problem in Britain that the government appointed a Minister of Loneliness. In an era when we’ve never been more connected by technology, between 25 and 30 per cent of Canadians report being persistently lonely today, according to this article from 2018.

Studies (like this, this or this one) show that chronically isolated people are less productive than those with solid social connections, make poorer decisions and are less committed to their employers, changing jobs more frequently. The effects are contagious. A lonely person’s behaviour hurts the productivity of others by undermining team-based activity. Is isolation – and its principal symptom, loneliness – a factor in your organization? If so, here are some things you can do to support your people and mitigate its effects on your organization.

Invest in healthy social ecosystems for employees

This means celebrating success and providing recognition to people more routinely, which is a key factor in employee productivity performance. Don’t wait for the annual awards banquet. Praise somebody today by sending a good word across your social networking platform. To create a stronger sense of social cohesion in the workplace, focus more on recognition for team accomplishments that highlight the value of collaboration.

Help people develop stronger friendships at work

Work and personal lives shouldn’t always be largely separate domains. Be creative in providing social opportunities for people to learn more about each other as people, not just as co-workers. Organize a community volunteer and fundraising project for your team. Start an intramural sports or board game league. Go to a museum. As in all things social, you have to decide what works in your culture. The point is, if you’re spending less on bricks-and-mortar facilities thanks to networking technology, invest some of the money into enriching your social ecosystem at work.

Improve the emotional health of your workplace culture

This is often hard for business people to talk about or quantify because it suggests something “soft” or worse, something unmeasurable. But studies show that organizations that are open and “emotionally warm” are better at retaining employees. In more aloof top-down organizations, a lack of connection and feelings of isolation can feed a lack of employee commitment and poorer employee retention.

Being emotionally warm is about caring for people in a meaningful way. It means being authentic, timely and candid in everything you say and do. Hold a breakfast for senior leaders to talk with front-line employees about things that matter to them. Invest in regular employee town halls and quarterly conference calls where people are encouraged to speak their mind. Respect the intelligence of your people and where they’re coming from. When there’s a mistake or error in judgment at the top of the house, admit it. It’s amazing what a little humility can do for fostering an open and authentic culture. Be real, be honest and be available.

Use technology to connect, share, congratulate and democratize access to information

Technology offers a powerful set of capabilities for acquiring data about the seriousness of issues like employee isolation and whether it’s a problem in your organization. With the growing use of data analytics, artificial intelligence and real-time employee surveys, there are more tools today to gauge and respond to the emotional and psychological pulse in your culture and understand whether and where things are improving or getting worse. Additionally, when in need of support, employees can use technology to connect to their employee and family assistance programs.

Train leaders to identify well-being issues (e.g., clinical depression, anxiety or isolation) on their teams.

Leaders don’t need to be mental health experts but they can help to identify people who need treatment and encourage them to get it without fear of stigma, which is still an issue in the workplace.

Realistically, we’re never going to eliminate loneliness or isolation from the human experience. What responsible leaders can and must do, is ensure their workplace culture is designed to include attributes that strengthen organizations and nourish the universal human need for connection, belonging, recognition and well-being.

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