By SHANNON O. WELLS
In many sectors of the academic world, some level of “alone time” at work is not only common, but often the preferred mode of professors and researchers. Extended work-related solitude, however, is not without its emotional, psychological and productivity-related consequences.
“Academia can be highly attractive for introverts because a faculty member can be productive alone in their office churning out papers,” says Christina Newhill, professor and doctoral program director at Pitt’s School of Social Work. “Working alone is preferred by some people and doesn’t equal loneliness. Most research endeavors today, however, require a team of people working together — the ‘lone cowboy’ model is pretty rare these days — but effort still has to be made to eradicate loneliness.”
Research provided by Pitt’s Mental Wellness Task Force of the University Senate Benefits and Welfare Committee reports that three out of five workers in America are classified as lonely or disconnected from their co-workers. One of every 10 such workers admit their work is of lower quality when they feel lonely. Research also shows that lonely workers think about quitting twice as frequently as non-lonely workers.
“I think that loneliness has always been an issue in the American workplace to some degree, but certain workplace changes over the decades have made it worse,” Newhill adds. “For example, technology isolates people from face-to-face interaction and while technology facilitates efficiency, it lessens human contact.”
Using a grant from the Year of Emotional Well Being for the 2022-23 academic term, the Mental Wellness Task Force is addressing the phenomenon of workplace loneliness head-on with “Don’t Be Lonely at Work,” a service and research project running from mid-February through the spring 2023 term.
A key element involves recruiting and training 100 faculty and staff across all Pitt campuses to serve as designated “Connectors.” In one-hour sessions, representatives from the School of Social Work will train connectors in various approaches to engage with co-workers experiencing loneliness. Each connector receives a free copy of “Connectable,” a book by Ryan Jenkins and Steven Van Cohen that addresses loneliness and enhancing a sense of belonging at work.
Connectors will report each week on their experiences, and the school will analyze resulting data to determine what efforts appear most effective at facilitating a greater sense of connection. Those who wish to volunteer as a connector can apply by filling out a digital form found here.
“Efforts can range from a simple ‘hello’ to inviting a co-worker to have coffee,” Newhill says. “I like the approaches at Pitt that are inclusive of all people and respectful of each other and which are personal — individuals connecting together in a natural way in the workplace.”
Connectors will be trained to counteract workplace loneliness through three levels of fundamental interpersonal communication:
Acknowledging coworkers’ existence, including ordinary interactions like smiling, greeting someone, paying compliments or inquiring about interests.
Acknowledging individual coworkers’ good qualities and good work, which might involve conveying that you have heard this person’s ideas, questions and concerns; stating that you witnessed something impressive they have done, or sticking up for a coworker in difficult group communications; and
- Taking time to get better acquainted, which might involve sitting next to the person at meetings or inviting them out for a coffee break during the workday.
Training also involves a book and video from lesslonely.com. Linda Tashbook, chair of the Mental Wellness Task Force, cites the video, particularly its four signs of loneliness, as the inspiration for the task force’s decision to address workplace loneliness for the Year of Emotional Well-Being project.
The four signs cited in the video include:
Lack of learning and development: Complacency with work.
Excessive work: Using work to distract from an employee’s personal life.
Lack of input: Sign the employee might be retreating inward.
Sloppy work: A shift in performance or routine.
“If people who work at Pitt do feel lonely, we hope that their loneliness will be alleviated by a coworker who connects with them,” Tashbook says. “Our aim is to reduce loneliness in the workplace at Pitt by getting staff and faculty accustomed to being more aware of coworkers and extending genuine attention and appreciation to coworkers.
“We have said that we hope to recruit 100 volunteer Connectors, but I can tell already that we are going to exceed that number, which is wonderful,” she adds. “The more people we can train to spot and respond to loneliness, the less loneliness there will be.”
The COVID pandemic, particularly in 2020 and 2021 when lockdowns, shuttered offices and work-from-home arrangements became the norm, exacerbated and complicated an already existing work-related condition.
“Humans are social animals, and our social connections generally support healthy well-being,” Newhill says. “Obviously, people differ in terms of their levels of extroversion and introversion, but most people will experience loneliness if the workplace is not designed to enable natural daily human interaction and the development of collegial relationships.
“Without a doubt, COVID pandemic conditions have led to even more social isolation in the workplace via social distancing requirements, masking — being able to see facial expressions is important for communication and connection — lockdowns and remote work,” she adds.
Life Solutions/Workpartners has collaborated with Pitt and the Mental Wellness Task Force through the UPMC Health Plan to assist employees with well-being-related issues since 1999. Clinical director Nancy McKee says COVID created a wave of work-related loneliness that crashed when many tried to re-engage with their previous workplace routines.
“Obviously, loneliness is brought about by that disconnect from people,” she says. “It’s not the absence of people, but the disconnect, because now we were encouraged to stay distant, to stay away, not to kind of interact in the ways that we typically interact — even just going out of our house. So what we’re seeing now is that it’s difficult for some people to re-engage, and I think the question is, when people come back into the workplace, it’s different.
“There may not be as many people there. There may be a bit more changes,” she adds. “I also think the workload has gotten different in different environments, so that what they used to do and what they’re doing now, it feels more pressure. So there’s all these complications that come along with loneliness.”
Finding well-being and peace of mind involving one’s work calls for a willingness to put effort into personal relationships.
“I think the challenge is to get in there and to really have to put some effort into relationships,” McKee says. “Workplace relationships are important, family relationships are important, but it’s important that you take some action towards that. And I think what we’re seeing is, employees and staff are not sure how to do that anymore. And not sure if other people want it.
“Just saying ‘hi’ to somebody is not the only thing you need to do,” she adds. “You have to really build that connection with that. And you have to want it.”
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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