Discover the role of community in tackling loneliness, underlining the need for leaders to foster relationships, enabling team members to find their people.
Today’s guest post is by Dan Pontefract, award-winning author of Work-Life Bloom.
One of the first events I participated in when I joined TELUS in late 2008 was the annual Retirees Holiday Lunch. Despite its current-day international prowess across multiple business lines, TELUS started in 1904 as a British Columbia–based, publicly run telecommunications company. Given its history, retirees are an essential part of the culture.
The Retirees Holiday Lunch is just as you might expect. In a very large room that accommodates hundreds of people, former TELUS team members arrive just before noon to be feted and served by current executives and leaders. The meal is turkey—with all the trimmings—complemented by holiday goodies, eggnog, and hot chocolate. The current leaders revel in the opportunity to put on festive aprons and ridiculously oversized oven mitts, taking orders and delivering hot plates to the retirees’ liking. Lovely thank-you gifts are distributed at the end of the shindig.
During my inaugural Holiday Lunch, I had a conversation with an older woman that sticks with me to this day. It was a festive gift that keeps giving.
After a few small-talk questions and answers, I realized that I was talking to a 40-year veteran of the company. She was a former director who had held several different roles and responsibilities over her tenure. She had been retired for over a decade. Somehow, we then got onto the subject of networks and relationships. I’m paraphrasing, but the end of the conversation went something like the following:
“I love coming to this lunch every year. It reminds me how important my friends were to me at BC Tel [former name of TELUS]. I was busy but happy. There was a lot going on. But I was never bored, never lonely.”
And then, without prompting, she offered me some advice, knowing I had only been at the company for about six weeks. “Find your people: it’s the best thing you’ll ever do.”
I often think about that exchange. I wonder if today’s leaders fully comprehend how important it is for team members to “find their people.” Perhaps more significantly, are leaders aware of the impact they can have when they help to create such an outcome?
Research suggests, however, that large swathes of people are lonely. Many individuals have no network, not even a small one. We might construe loneliness as the opposite of finding your people. If a person doesn’t have a vibrant network—when there are no strong relationship ties in their orbit—the chances for loneliness increase. If strong ties are lacking, the likelihood of the next tier of contacts—oftentimes referred to as one’s weak ties—dramatically diminishes too.
Not only does loneliness create negative consequences in one’s life, but it also creates deleterious workplace effects too. The whole situation is about as encouraging as occupying the middle seat on an airplane, sandwiched between two obnoxiously intoxicated first-time flyers during a five-hour flight. It’s that bad.
Nobel Prize winners Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton discovered through their 2010 research, for example, that loneliness was one of the top factors preventing life happiness and satisfaction. Unsurprisingly, people who are lonely demonstrate a high incidence of sadness, stress, and anxiety. In addition, research conducted by the University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo in 2014 suggested that loneliness can increase an older person’s chances of premature death by 14 percent.
A massive 2017 study of thousands of U.K.-based employees conducted by New Economics Research indicated that loneliness costs employers roughly £2.5 billion annually. Cigna, a U.S. healthcare and insurance company, suggests loneliness costs U.S.-based employers more than USD$ 154 billion annually in stress-related absenteeism. The Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre says it costs Australian employers AUD$ 2.7 billion. Wherever you look, loneliness and a lack of relationships cost organizations billions.
Unsurprisingly, in May 2023, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, released an 85-page advisory declaring loneliness a new public health epidemic in the United States.
“Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an under-appreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health. Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight—one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled and more productive lives,” Murthy stated.
He went on to write the following: “Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity and substance use disorders.”
One thing is clear: leaders must create a sense of community at work because that may be all an individual team member has in their life. It is vital that you—as the supporting leader of your team—create the conditions in which people can build and nurture both strong and weak ties inside and outside the organization.
Your leadership in the context of building relationships is crucial. It’s time to curb loneliness. It’s time to truly help team members see that their network can also be part of their net worth.
It’s time to help your team members “find their people.”
This is an edited excerpt from Work-Life Bloom: How to Nurture a Team That Flourishes by Dan Pontefract (Figure 1 Publishing, 2023).
Dan Pontefract is an award-winning author, keynote speaker, and leadership strategist who helps organizations and leaders to bloom. You can find out more about Dan and his books at www.danpontefract.com
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