Loneliness Adds to Career Burnout

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Each of us walks alone sometimes (Sanderson for Fotolia)
Each of us walks alone sometimes (Sanderson for Fotolia)

Millions of Americans often feel alone, and it’s making them ill. In 2016, Dr. Vivek Murthy, then U.S. Surgeon General, sounded an alarm. “Despite the ubiquity of social media, we are facing an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation,” he said.

According to Murthy, social connection is a critical component of “emotional well-being,” a “powerful resource within each of us that can reduce our risk of illness, improve our performance, and enable us to be resilient in the face of adversity.”

The link between connection and overall health is becoming increasingly clear. Research suggests that people with rewarding social relationships are more likely than their peers to recover quickly from illness and live a long life. Connected people have lower levels of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and chronic negativity.

On the other hand, the health consequences of feeling isolated can be dramatic, from disrupted sleep to a compromised immune system.

Are you sick and tired of work? Is loneliness one reason why?

And the modern plague of isolation is having an impact on our workplace. In addition to struggling with issues like diminished cognitive performance, it appears that lonely people more frequently suffer from exhaustion or disengagement on the job.

The association between loneliness and professional burnout can be complicated and difficult to chart. When my new clients talk about their disaffection at work, they seldom begin by using the word “lonely.” But often, as we keep talking about their unhappiness or lack of productivity, social isolation becomes a recurring theme.

Sometimes the root cause of your loneliness may seem obvious. Perhaps you were thrilled by an opportunity to telecommute, but now you feel bored, stale or out-of-touch, without regular opportunities to hang out with co-workers. Or maybe you work in an office that is so busy that nobody has time to chat.

In some cases it’s the nature of your job that leaves you feeling cut off from other people. In my May 25, 2017, podcast, Jazzed About Work, WOUB Media chief and former Athens, Ohio, Municipal Court Judge Tom Hodson talked about how lonely it can be to run a courtroom, undergo intense scrutiny and make difficult judicial decisions. Professional isolation is a necessary part of sitting on the bench, Hodson said, but it carries over to every part of a judge’s life. “You can’t just turn it on and off,” he said. The sense of being separate can touch all your relationships, including those with your family. And the strain can wear you out.

The sheer busy-ness of success may also leave you feeling lonely. Journalist Billy Baker heard from readers around the world after his March 9, 2017, Boston Globe Magazine article on how loneliness is a bigger threat than smoking or obesity for middle-aged men. Baker wrote that many of his close friendships had slipped away “as I structured myself into a work-family-work cycle that had left me feeling like a middle-aged loser starved for my guys.”

In his March 23 follow-up to the blockbuster story, Baker said the intense response to his article was a wake-up call. He started “making vows and making plans and reconnecting with old friends – many of whom reached out after reading the article. These, experts will tell you, are the exact steps you need to take to get friendships back on track, and they have immediate positive effects on your health.”

If you’re lonely in any part of your life, it could indeed undercut your health as well as your ability to be at your creative best in your professional life. If you’d like to feel more connected, consider these strategies:

  • Try something new. If you’re not meeting new people, take some steps to get out of your rut. Even if it feels a little scary, go to different places, join a club or class, or make an effort to connect with a lonely-seeming colleague. It may take a few tries to expand your circle, so don’t give up if your first efforts lead to dead ends.
  • Volunteer. You may be surrounded by a crowd, yet still feel lonely, if you are not engaged with people who share your values and interests. Volunteering can give you an opportunity to work alongside like-minded people. And it can feel good to be needed.
  • Tend existing relationships. You can address that all-alone feeling without adding a long list of names to your social network. Follow Baker’s example and make plans to spend time with people you already know and care about. You be the one to send out invitations for lunch, dinner or some kind of shared activity
  • Change how you treat others. If you’re feeling isolated, your emotions may be nudging you to examine the way you’re interacting with the people you see. If you’re too busy to smile and say “hello,” if you avoid handshakes and eye contact, or if you’d rather be in your room with the door closed, then your attitude is part of the problem. Focus on other people, listen to what they say, and be alert for ways to say “thanks” or offer a little help.

We all feel lonely some of the time. It is so human. When a sense of isolation hits you, notice the feeling, then respond with the kind of compassion you would offer to a close friend. And think about your next action steps.

For more tips on creating a rewarding work life, check out my book, “Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like a CEO,” a Career Press best seller.

Subscribe to Bev’s podcast “Jazzed About Work” at Apple Podcasts or Google Play.

Beverly Jones, an alum of Ohio University, is a former lawyer and Fortune 500 executive, an executive and transitions coach, and a leadership consultant with a broad and varied practice. Her column appears at Clearways Consulting LLC. Republshed with permission. For archives and additional content, visit the Clearways Consulting website.