For more than ten years, I’ve worked remotely. Usually a few hours drive from the office. At first it was a difficult change to make, but now it’s embedded in my life. As remote and flexible working starts to become the norm for so many more employees, it is bringing with it a new problem for employers to tackle – loneliness. But it’s not just those who work away from the workplace that can feel lonely; it can affect everyone, including those that spend five days a week working with plenty of other people. It’s more to do with the fact that, in this more digitally connected world, people are feeling less connected personally.
We are experiencing fewer of those moments that connect us to other people. It’s easier to email a colleague sat a few feet away than to have a face-to-face conversation. Without these moments of meaningful interaction, we aren’t building those essential interpersonal bonds, which means friendships aren’t blossoming at work as much as they used to. As a result, our own wellbeing – and even that of those around us – is being negatively impacted.
Humans are made to be social. We aren’t designed to be on our own. In fact, we strive for connection with other people so much that loneliness is now a strong predictor of premature death. A study that looked at 13,000 patients with heart conditions found that when they had poor social connections, their conditions were exacerbated. Scoring low on factors like size of social network and perception of support carries a similar risk to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, according to one study. But even at the less extreme end, loneliness at work impacts people’s immune systems, and negatively affects mental health.
When employees feel isolated, they tend to be less engaged at work. Having regular connections with colleagues is critical to our happiness and subsequently, critical to our engagement and productivity. When researchers studied loneliness at work, they found that lonely employees withdrew, as a result their productivity and motivation dropped, and performance was poorer. With so many people feeling disconnected from their colleagues, the impact on their work should be of great concern to their employers.
Part of the vicious circle of loneliness is that when an employee is lonely, they tend to recoil into themselves, become less committed to company values, and are far less likely to be approached by other employees. This knock-on effect starts to breed more loneliness in the workplace. But there is an interesting solution to the problem, one that has multiple health and wellbeing benefits for staff – recognition.
Recognising the efforts of your colleagues brings you closer to them. When we get thanked by our colleagues, the same part of the brain gets activated as if we have been given money. The ventral striatum and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex are reward centres in the brain that are activated when we get thanked or get compliments. Receiving social rewards boosts our self-esteem. They are especially powerful when they are unexpected. But it’s not just receiving recognition that improves our wellbeing. Research from Mendoza and Schultz has shown that the reward centre in the brain lights up when just observing someone being thanked. Seeing someone else receive recognition has a positive effect on all who witness it.
When we give employees autonomy over who they thank and when, we give them a powerful tool to combat their own – and other’s – loneliness. By enabling them to build emotional connections with each other, we see collaboration and psycho-logical safety improve. Even as a senior member of staff at Benefex, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love receiving a funny gif or video from a colleague I’ve helped out, using our Recognition product. It not only makes me feel more emotionally connected to my work and our people, but it makes me feel physically closer to them.
There’s a great poem by Danusha Lameris called ‘Small Kindnesses’. In it, Danusha talks about how we often say things like “bless you” and “thank you” without thinking about them. She writes: “We have so little of each other, now. So far from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange”. These small interactions are what make us human. We want to make each other happy. It’s time we brought back more of these moments of exchange and started recognising and thanking each other more often. Not just for our colleagues’ wellbeing, but our own too.
Benefex is helping the workplace become more connected, with OneHub | Reward and Recognition. This intuitive and familiar social recognition app helps colleagues to deliver meaningful and personal interactions using text, memes, videos and GIFs. See in real-time how quickly teams collaborate, share ideas, and acknowledge their colleagues – wherever they are in the world. Visit hellobenefex.com to find out more.