Burnout at Work Isn’t Just About Exhaustion. It’s Also About Loneliness

More and more people are feeling tired & lonely at work – this is having an impact not just on individuals but organizations too. The General Social Survey of 2016 shows, that 50% of people across professions are burnt out. There is a significant correlation between feeling lonely and work exhaustion: The more people are exhausted, the lonelier they feel.

This loneliness is not the result of social isolation, as you might think, but rather is due to emotional exhaustion of workplace burnout. Loneliness, whether it results from social isolation or exhaustion, has serious consequences for individuals. John Cacioppo, a leading expert on loneliness and co-author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, emphasizes its tremendous impact on psychological, physical health and longevity. Research by Sarah Pressman, of the University of California, Irvine, corroborates his work and demonstrates that while obesity reduces longevity by 20%, drinking by 30%, and smoking by 50%, loneliness reduces it by a whopping 70%. In fact, one study suggests that loneliness increases your chance of stroke or coronary heart disease — the leading cause of death in developed countries — by 30%. On the other hand, feelings of social connection can strengthen our immune systemlengthen our life, and lower rates of anxiety & depression.

Loneliness is an emotionally painful feeling; it even registers as physical pain in the brain. Social repercussions of this discomfort directly impact work productivity because people disengage. And both the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University and the Gallup Organization have shown the extreme costs to companies of disengagement: almost 37% higher absenteeism, 49% more accidents, 16% lower profitability, and a 65% lower share price over time.

Experts and companies have struggled to figure out how to counter growing levels of burnout. Many recommendations focus on relieving stress, teaching mindfulness, or reducing workload — all of which treat burnout as an individual condition. But its link to loneliness suggests that greater human connection at work may also be key to solving ‘burnout problem’.

In fact, research has demonstrated the link between social support at work, lower rates of burnout, and greater work satisfaction as well as productivity. After all, the most important factor in work happiness, a UK study showed, is positive social relationships with co-workers.

So what can leaders and employees do?

  • Promote a workplace culture of inclusion and empathy.Research by Kim Cameron, author of Positive Leadership, shows that workplaces characterized by caring, supportive, respectful, honest, and forgiving relationships lead to higher overall organizational performance. Empathy, in particular, may be a protective factor against burnout and work exhaustion, studies Jane Dutton, co-author of Awakening Compassion at Work, persuasively argues that compassion can foster greater overall workplace resilience.
  • Encourage employees throughout the organization to build developmental networks.These networks are small groups of colleagues that one routinely turn to for task advice or emotional support. Companies can help foster them by assigning on boarding partners and helping employees access, or connect with potential mentors, coaches, and peers. Removing barriers to these connections , by freeing space in calendars and offering contact information with relevant background information can go a long way.
  • Celebrate collective successes.Although, happiness arising from a happy hour is short-lived, celebrating collective success helps in creating a sense of belonging and attachment in organizations.

The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge based management consulting firm in India, suggests that greater human connection at work can go a long way in solving the ‘burnout problem’. The stakes for employers, companies, leaders and employees are high when it comes to loneliness and burnout. Now it’s the time for managers and leaders to take steps in order to battle this epidemic, by consciously promoting a workplace of empathy and inclusion, by encouraging employees to build networks that can provide emotional support, and celebrating collective success that fosters a sense of belonging.

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