I Get So Lonely: Fighting a New Epidemic
There’s a loneliness epidemic in America, and your credit union’s work culture could be partially to blame.
That’s according to a former U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, who spoke to The Washington Post earlier this month about his recent cover story in the Harvard Business Review, in which he calls loneliness a public health crisis and says the workplace is a major factor that determines just how lonely people feel.
This article struck me not just because of its depressing tone, but because it refers to the loneliness felt by workers who physically gather at an office or another work environment, and don’t feel emotionally connected to their colleagues. It doesn’t even mention remote workers – such as myself and the entire staff of CU Times – so in that case, we must really be screwed, right?
I’ve always been a proponent of the “location-independent” work lifestyle, but won’t deny that it requires more effort to maintain a healthy social life. However, working onsite doesn’t guarantee a built-in circle of friends either. The last time I worked in an office, I was surrounded by people every day and booked with work lunches, happy hours and birthday celebrations. But I wasn’t fulfilled, because many of these interactions felt forced. Most of my coworkers were married with kids and I was not, so I didn’t feel like I fit in.
The only time a workplace truly fulfilled me socially was during the six months I spent working as a waitress in a popular restaurant in Columbia, S.C. Each night at work felt like a fun night out with friends, and it eliminated the need to pursue any social connections elsewhere (unfortunately, the benefits of the job stopped there, as waitressing wasn’t exactly the career path I had in mind).
In his interview with the Post, Dr. Murthy mentions that the fact employees tend to work in excess contributes to the loneliness epidemic, stating, “To the extent [employers] can help support people in their lives outside of work and protect time outside of work, they can help people enhance their emotional well-being.”
So, one could argue that a remote, or partially remote, work lifestyle may in fact be the antidote to loneliness. When you’re not stuck in a building with the same people every day, working long hours and feeling pressured to attend the latest “cake party” down the hall, you’ll have more time to pursue relationships you actually want.
And the anti-9-to-5 movement is picking up steam. Making a living in the so-called “gig economy” – a term coined to describe the emerging labor market of short-term contracts and freelance work instead of permanent jobs – is becoming more widely accepted. Nation1099 reported this month that 11% of working adults in the U.S. work primarily as independent contractors, 19.8% of full-time independents earn more than $100,000 per year (“State of Independence in America 2017,” MBO Partners), part-time and full-time freelancers represent 35% of the U.S. workforce (“Freelancing in America, 2016,” UpWork/Freelancers Union) and 7.6 million Americans will work in the on-demand economy by 2020 (Intuit Investor Forecast).
Remote workers and freelancers also have plenty of opportunities outside of their local coffee shop to meet others like them. Not only are co-working spaces popping up across the country, groups are hosting remote work trips in places like Hawaii and Costa Rica. Go on Airbnb, and you’ll find temporary rooms for rent in shared homes designed for traveling artists, remote workers and freelancers. While planning an upcoming trip to Austin, Texas, I spotted one such rental on the app – an artsy space with private bedrooms and a communal space where visitors could scrawl out group activity plans on a large chalkboard. (It sounded enticing, but recognizing my need for privacy, I went with a Holiday Inn Express.)
Of course, many credit union employees don’t have the option of working remotely. They need to be present in your branches to give members the top-notch service they deserve, and at your headquarters for strategy meetings and day-to-day operations. Still, loneliness can affect them, and when an employee’s emotional well-being is in jeopardy, it impacts their productivity, and ultimately your bottom line. Here are some ways employers can help fight this so-called epidemic, according to Dr. Murthy’s Post interview:
Give employees a chance to open up. Dr. Murthy said in the office of the surgeon general, each employee was given five minutes at every weekly staff meeting to share a personal story, whether it was about their family, an experience they had before work or their dreams for the future. A practice like this helps humanize the staff and lets employees know their organization’s leaders care about more than just the quality of their work.
Lead by example. Some bosses may be used to portraying themselves as tough-as-nails individuals who are incapable of showing emotion, but this sends the message that employees should make it their goal never to crack either. We all know executives endure personal struggles just like everyone else, and when they show some vulnerability in their work relationships, employees can feel encouraged to let their guards down when they need to, too.
Remove the stigma around depression and anxiety. When’s the last time you openly took a “mental health day?” I took one about a month ago, but only because I’m comfortable enough with my boss to be honest about those types of things. At a past job, I probably would have faked a cold. People are unfortunately conditioned to believe it’s only acceptable to use a sick day when they have physical ailments, not mental health-related symptoms, and that isn’t cool.
Finally, even after implementing every emotional wellness initiative possible into your corporate culture, it’s still important to value employees’ time outside of work. Some people just prefer to keep their work and social lives separate, and they can’t pursue their own interests if they’re always on call.
Natasha Chilingerian is managing editor for CU Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.