Loneliness — the distress and discomfort we feel when we perceive a gap between the social connection we want and the quantity and quality of the relationships we currently have — can be a side effect of remote work. That lack of connection might feel slight or huge based on how we’re wired and our unique set of needs. Sadly, prevalent feelings of loneliness were on the rise even before the Covid-19 pandemic, with 61% of respondents to a 2020 study conducted by Cigna reporting feeling lonely. The author presents several steps to take if you’re grappling with loneliness.
When I first made the switch to working remotely, I was elated. I had been commuting for years, which regularly constituted 12 or more hours stuck in traffic each week and resulted in incalculable levels of stress and frustration. When I began working from home, in addition to regaining my lost commuting hours, I loved my new ability to focus on my work without the distraction of an open-plan office environment.
However, as time progressed, I started to feel lonely. I was able to laser-focus on my work, but my interactions with others were driven solely by virtual meeting agendas or email. I noticed I was becoming less enthused and more withdrawn. I spent too much time scrolling social media because I was silently craving connection with others. I was slowly but steadily becoming isolated.
Loneliness is the distress and discomfort we feel when we perceive a gap between the social connection we want and the quantity and quality of the relationships we currently have. That gap might feel slight or huge based on how we’re wired and our unique set of needs. Sadly, prevalent feelings of loneliness were on the rise even before the Covid-19 pandemic, with 61% of respondents to a 2020 study conducted by Cigna reporting feeling lonely.
If you’re grappling with loneliness, here are steps you can take to start to address those connection gaps.
Identify your needs.
Start the process by considering what this feeling of loneliness means to you. Identifying your needs is essential because how you interpret and experience loneliness will be strikingly different from how someone else does.
Consider what you need in order to feel like you’re connected and thriving at work. What type of interactions and levels of engagement do you enjoy? Is it small talk, one-on-one meetings, or group conversations? Are you looking for a lunch buddy? Do you wish you had a bigger team to collaborate with?
When I identified my needs, I quickly discovered that I didn’t miss my old work environment, but I desperately needed to find avenues to stay connected with others and meet new people on a weekly basis. Get specific when you consider what you need. For example, if you decide you need a lunch buddy, do you want to meet twice a week or once a month?
When you reflect on your detailed answers it will be easier to determine if a solution could be a quick fix or something that requires a bigger change.
Assess your options.
Now that you’ve identified what’s missing, it’s time to review the options that could move you closer to your desired level of social connection and interaction. Start this phase from a place of curiosity and keep asking yourself questions, such as:
- What already exists that I may not have utilized?
- What can I adjust to better suit my needs?
- Are there resources or opportunities I could investigate and learn more about?
As you respond to these questions, challenge yourself to try to identify more than just one answer. Approach it like a brainstorm activity and build out a shortlist of possible options. Ideas to consider could be as wide-ranging as finding a nearby coworking space, exploring volunteer opportunities, researching existing networks at your company (such as employee resource groups), taking a class, or joining and engaging in professional associations.
When I reviewed my options, I quickly realized my flexible schedule provided a unique opportunity. After shortlisting potential ideas, I decided to start a virtual mastermind group for underrepresented professional women. Bringing together a small group with a common goal gave me the opportunity to forge new connections and help others who were also feeling isolated.
Take a first step.
Review your list of needs and circle the one that feels like the most important. Then take a closer look at the options you brainstormed in step two. Consider the ones that could best address your most important need, then start with one first step to explore it further.
For example, if you would love to collaborate with others, could you ask your manager if you can mentor someone who needs to learn a skill you have? If you miss social interactions, can you ask a peer if they’d like to meet once a month for a virtual coffee? If you want to build new connections, can you find a local volunteer role that will introduce you to others?
You’ll likely find that your new ideas have an added bonus of helping you accelerate your professional development, leverage existing skills, make new connections, or broaden your knowledge base and perspectives, all while working toward addressing your feelings of loneliness.
Taking the first step will allow you to start to put ideas into action. As you do so, pay attention to how you feel. If you continue to feel lonely as you work on the next steps, don’t hold back from talking to someone, such as a coworker or a friend, about what you’re experiencing. Also make sure to monitor any incremental or sudden changes to your physical or mental health. A recent study published by The BMJ shows that social isolation and loneliness can lead to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental health conditions, such as sleep problems, low self-esteem, high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression. If you, or someone close to you, have concerns that your remote work environment is having a negative impact on your well-being, talk to a health professional to get the support you need.
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It’s not easy to strike the right balance for our work environments, but don’t ignore a situation that makes you feel perpetually sad, stressed, or anxious. Your work matters, and how you work is important, but your health and well-being are priceless.
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