Loneliness Affects Health – Here’s a few ways to fight it

There is something you could do to improve your health and longevity that you might not have paid enough attention to yet. Sure, most people know the importance of a healthy diet and exercise, and recently there has been a lot of focus on sleep and recovery. These are all important and for most of us, there is room for improvement in these areas. However, there is one area that is not yet getting the attention it deserves: the impact of social relationships on health and wellbeing.

Humans are thoroughly social creatures, and it would be illogical to overlook the importance of social relationships (or lack thereof) on health and wellbeing. We all have a very deeply rooted need to belong. In its most recent Global Risks Report, the World Economic Forum raises loneliness as one of the societal stressors contributing to the observed declining mental health. The report references a study showing a link between perceived loneliness and poorer sleep quality, and its effect on individuals’ wider resilience.

Effects beyond psychological wellbeing

Looking at the research, loneliness might be an even bigger health hazard, well beyond psychological wellbeing. There is growing evidence showing the link between loneliness and mental and physical health; it is even considered to be a risk factor comparable to obesity, substance abuse and lack of physical activity. Loneliness can be defined as a subjective feeling of perceived social isolation – meaning that you can be alone and not feel lonely or you can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely.

Treating loneliness at work

As a company, there isn’t necessarily much you can do to directly improve the relationships your staff has outside the office. However, what you can do is to pay attention to improving relationships within the company. What kind of traditions and practices do you have that bring people together? How is the quality of your leadership? What kind of an emotional culture are you actively trying to build? And what type of people are you bringing into your company? From a humane perspective reducing loneliness is important. If that’s not enough to motivate companies, there is also recent evidence indicating that workplace loneliness is associated with lower job performance.

Examples from us at Hintsa

The founder of Hintsa Performance, Dr Aki Hintsa, had one key rule for recruitment: only hire people with warm hearts. This is something we still abide by. This is a good starting point, but there also needs to be some structures in place that support social interactions (this is not a trivial topic in a global company where remote work is the rule rather than the exception). In our Helsinki office, going out for a lunch together is a common practice. Whenever colleagues from our other offices visit, we make sure to invite them along as well. Normally this happens right after 11 am, which our non-Finnish employees often find amusing.

Spontaneous events matter, too. We moved offices last year, and as part of that, we revamped our staff’s facilities. We bought wall bars and people were eager to test their strength in pull-ups. This quite rapidly led into a spontaneous pull-up competition and once a week we would gather around the wall bar for a friendly competition. Even different leagues were formed for the beginners and the sports enthusiasts. One would act as a referee to make sure the repetitions met the jointly agreed standards, as others cheered each other on. High fives were flying for both good efforts and personal bests. This was a small example of how with only a little effort and a few minutes we were able to bring people together to share a moment, which I believe made us all feel better for the rest of the day.

Benefits of working (out) as a team

As everyone in our company, I love hearing similar stories from our client programmes. Especially our team coaching services are designed for natural groups existing in an organisation – be it part of a talent management programme or development programme for a leadership team. Even though the emphasis of our programmes is on improving an individual’s life and performance, the added bonus is often also increased camaraderie among the people in that participating group.

Normally there is a joint exercise session as part of the journey. This seems to have an unintentional side effect; when people meet on a more personal level, maybe in their sweatpants and out of their work roles, the social bonds between participants grow stronger. They get to know each other on a slightly more personal level. This builds trust. And who wouldn’t want a leadership team where the members trust each other?

What, even seemingly small, practices you could introduce in your company, that would bring people together? How could you, irrespective of your role, increase the quality (and quantity) of social connections in your organisation?