Workplace Relationships

How the Pandemic Is Fueling a Workplace Epidemic and What to Do about It

loneliness in the workplace during remote work during the COVID-19/coronavirus pandemic

Every day during junior high at Bartlesville Central, there was a dessert in my lunch. When I ate together with my buddies, a twin pack of Twinkies was often the closing course.

There were good times around the lunch table as we acted junior-highish: laughing, teasing and thinking we were all grown up. That crème-filled dessert remains a memorable part of those fun times.

"61% of Americans are lonely and 47% of them don’t engage in meaningful conversation most days." — CIGNA Tweet

Talking about the need for friendship, a friend recently said to me “it’s better to eat Twinkies together than broccoli alone.” That could never be more important than it is today.

Loneliness in the workplace is an epidemic.

And it’s more important than ever to recognize this hidden epidemic. According to CIGNA, a multinational health insurance provider, 61% of Americans are lonely and 47% of them don’t engage in meaningful conversation most days.

These stark findings coincide with studies from Brigham Young University, which show that we could smoke 15 cigarettes a day and still be healthier than if we are lonely.

Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, gasoline is being thrown on that fire.

New social distancing regulations, while helpful to slowing the spread of the virus, now mean that workers are more isolated than ever from their friends and coworkers.

So what can we as workplace leaders do to help blunt the COVID-19’s impact on lonely workers?

Let’s draw from the successes I’ve witnessed when working with clients, how they’ve uniquely impacted the effect of loneliness on their organization, and how you can use these examples to drum up ideas for your teams.

Make frequent contact with your employees and team members.

An IT manager at a multinational energy company recently told me she had nine phone calls scheduled the day we spoke.

“Wow! You are a busy lady!” I remarked.

She smiled, nodded and shared that each call was simply 15 minutes of checking in with the young staff she was leading. She knew that staying in tune with her people was critical for their health and productivity.

Get more of your team involved in the tasks at hand, even if they’re not crucial.

In our hurry-up U.S. pace, inviting only those who are needed in a meeting and quickly reaching a decision drives profitable business. We Americans are fantastic at solving problems and getting results.

Yet, in this new remote working culture, including others who are not as crucial -- simply for their social interaction -- is an important thought to ponder for meeting rosters.

Hold small online get togethers after normal working hours.

One Fortune 100 company shared with me that they plan to do online after-hours gatherings with their teams. These after-hour gatherings are aimed at simply enjoying each other socially, not discussing work-related issues.

Let's build stronger and more cohesive teams throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Use more socially-rich communication tools, such as phone calls & video chats.

Email and texting are more oftentimes efficient than phone calls and video calls. Yet those seemingly time-consuming formats produce longer term fruit by being a better relationship-building medium.

During this unique time in our history, the further we can climb the communication ladder from efficiency to relationship building, the better.

In a training session we held with a large engineering firm, one manager, Jim, was lauded by his colleagues.

One after the other, each member of his team shared why they adored him: No matter how inundated he might have been with work -- and even when it would have been easier to simply fire off a quick reply via email -- he made the effort to communicate more personally with his team.

Take part in online team-building games.

Online team-building games are a great way for people to get to know one another.

In a recent online team-building session I was leading, we were all surprised to learn one 50-something programmer was formerly a youth all-star baseball pitcher. This somewhat shocking revelation gave everyone a starting place to connect with him and it opened the door for others to share.

If you don’t know where to start, don’t worry! I like to use games like “Two Truths and a Lie” or “One Thing You Don’t Know About Me” as a fun way to help open up group connection and conversations.

If you’re looking for more ideas, John Chen’s 50 Digital Team-Building Games is a fantastic resource you can use for your team or to start brainstorming new game ideas for your sessions.

Don’t let COVID-19 push your team further into loneliness.

Right now, it’s absolutely vital that we continue to physically distance ourselves from one another to stop the spread of COVID-19. But to stop the spread of loneliness among our teams, now’s the time to close the social and emotional distance.

As you continue about your work throughout this uncertain time, remember that the effort you put in to draw your teams together now will yield immense returns for your team’s morale, productivity, and ability to overcome tough challenges in the future.

Remember: You’re not only stopping the spread of the virus. You’re stopping the spread of loneliness.