Yes, it’s true. You may be the most important person in your co-worker’s life.
Recent research shows Americans are spending more time alone following the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. To make up for the time we needed to stay apart during 2020 and 2021, you might think that the pendulum would swing to the other side and we would see people spending even more time together than before. That’s not happening for everyone.
This tendency, along with research that found 58% of American adults tested out as lonely, men are experiencing a friendship recession, and more people live alone and have fewer friends and acquaintances, is cause for concern. Loneliness and social isolation contribute to diminished physical and mental health, suicide ideation, and displacement aggression that could escalate to physical violence.
A co-worker who is lonely and feels isolated will not be able to give their best effort and function well as part of the team. It’s the people who feel invisible and left out who experience the most pain (which researchers describe as “social pain”). Being in that state may lead an individual to “act out” and even sabotage work performance.
Human connection is necessary for people to thrive in life. Given the continued loneliness epidemic, interactions at work may be a primary source of potential connection for your co-workers. That’s where you come in. Helping the people you work with meet their need for connection will not only improve their lives and help them do their best work but it will also improve the work culture and social environment of your team, department, and organization.
Now, we’re not saying you need to be best friends. We realize that some people are difficult to be around. That said, treating people with respect and doing what you can to promote a sense of belonging are important elements when it comes to fostering connection at work.
Here are three actions you can take:
1. Acknowledge each individual.
It can be as simple as making eye contact and saying “Hi, [name]” when you first see the person that day. If a co-worker is holding back on participating in a meeting, consider drawing them into the conversation by asking a broad question such as, “[Name], what do you make of this?”
2. Gain personal knowledge.
We bring this up frequently because it’s so important. Getting to know about your co-workers’ lives outside of work and sharing details about your life outside of work humanizes the other. Research by Professor Ashley Hardin shows that with more personal knowledge, people are more responsive to each other and less likely to back-stab or socially undermine the other person. Mike’s favorite question to gain more personal knowledge is “What are your interests outside of work?”. He then asks follow-up questions. You could ask someone who likes to read what their favorite genre is (historical fiction, mystery, self-help, etc.) or if they learned to play an instrument as a child or played sports in their teens.
3. Act with kindness.
Look for small ways to show kindness to your co-workers. If you are going to get coffee, consider asking if you can bring them back a cup too. If you are going out for lunch, ask if they care to join you. Hold the door open for someone whose arms are full. Give a sincere compliment. Empathize with someone who is facing a challenge.
The holidays are a time of year when people are expected to spend time with family and friends. For those who are lonely or are experiencing disconnection, it can be an especially painful period. Through your attitudes, words, and behaviors at work that boost connection and convey positive interest in them, you can help ease their pain and give them hope for the future.
This article was co-authored by Katharine P. Stallard.