Admit it, you feel lonely….
The thought of going into that soulless office fills you with dread.
Nobody has time to listen, ask about your weekend or offer advice on your latest problem.
And it’s not because you’re shy or socially awkward.
Far from it.
In fact, many of us think about how to cope with loneliness.
Today shareholders expect CEO’s and executives to deliver on short-term targets for growth. And if a business is struggling to meet those targets you’ll find that this pressure often extends down to every department, team and individual.
If that happens the culture of a business can become all about individuals hitting targets. Performance management is ramped up, budgets are squeezed and employees can feel less rather than more empowered to take time for others or think about their job as having meaning. So, if you do feel lonely in the office it’s often because it’s a target driven business.
You may hear your manager say if you get everything finished you can leave early. The problem here is that this again drives people towards working as an individual rather than as a team.
When you actually step back it’s like being released from prison early for good behaviour. It doesn’t engender teamwork. It doesn’t encourage you to stay to help others who might be struggling. To function as a team should.
And when you do get home early there’s often an empty house or more demands waiting for you.
Don’t worry. Many people are in the same position as you.
Look over at your colleagues. Deep down they feel the same as you.
We’ve forgotten how important being sociable at work helps build friendships, new connections and ultimately enhances productivity. We all struggle with isolation at home and at work and how to cope with loneliness.
I’ve been in this situation before. In fact, it’s this reason why I feel compelled to help you stop being lonely through my own story about cashing in a career.
The Loneliness Trap
It happened at university. I’d never worked for a large corporate so when the chance came to complete my sandwich year at an international business I grabbed it with both hands.
To me it was like winning the lottery. I’d been used to an apprentice’s wage of £6k a year and this job was paying double that.
The job involved working at a remote gas installation far away from the glamorous HQ in London. It would mean working alongside the team of experienced engineers and contractors.
The only problem was relocating hundreds of miles away from my current friends and family, but because I could see those extra pound signs, I put those thoughts to the back of my mind and signed a 12-month contract.
June 2011 – I said goodbye to friends and family, packed up all my possessions and drove 150miles to reach an isolated, village pub in Norfolk located 3 miles away from the office.
I arrived at the pub in the early afternoon and found the landlord and a few local people sat inside. No one moved as I hovered over the bar trying to grab their attention. It was like a scene out of Hollywood, where a drifter arrives in town, only for the locals to close the doors and drive him out.
You can imagine the horror on my face.
After what felt like 20 minutes. the landlord finally moved and showed me to my room. As he handed me the keys and closed the door my mind turned on me.
The excitement and anticipation had gone. It was replaced by a feeling of emptiness and the four walls of a very dark and damp hotel room.
Sat on the end of the bed my mind just wouldn’t switch off. My mother called and told me it was just nerves and that come tomorrow I’d be settled into the new job and make lots of friends.
I’m sure you’ve been in this situation. Like the night before the first day of school when you don’t have any friends and worry constantly about fitting in. This was similar but somehow even worse.
I kept thinking did I do the right thing by taking this job?
The job paid 20% more than I’d been offered by other companies and the company was a leading brand in its sector. How could a skint university undergraduate turn down such a great opportunity?
After a very restless night, I arrived at my new office feeling fatigued and drained.
At the gates, the security guards confiscated my mobile phone as the office was located inside a very large gas production facility. Security threats and ignition sources had to be eliminated so the mobile had to go.
This put me into a further state of isolation, which was compounded when I was shown to my desk. By today’s standards, the room was small. It had two desks facing each wall with a desktop computer and printer in the corner.
The corridors leading from my office felt dark and oppressive. Strong fire doors were situated every 4 meters further adding to the sense of confinement.
The job itself did little to help. I was going to be doing lots of data analysis, site inspections and report writing. I know you might think this sounded like a nice job but to me in my state of mind, being back home was the only place that could solve my feelings of isolation.
The problem was my gut instinct was right. Four weeks into the job and there was no sign of me feeling part of the social group at work. Nobody to share my worries, apart from calling up my mother – and she worried constantly about my mental health.
I made the decision to move to Norwich, a local city, far away from the village pub. It meant a much longer commute, but I was now in a shared house with other people my age. I also took a membership at a local gym.
The problem was this didn’t really solve the feelings of isolation.
I didn’t feel able to make friends – it was like my brain had changed. My amygdala was on fire! I was in no place to start new friendships or generally connect with others.
It’s at these lowest points when you do something stupid.
No! It wasn’t the drugs or drink.
It was an innocent loan to buy a gaming computer.
The moment the computer was delivered into my bedroom, multiplayer cooperative games like Battlefield 1946 and Quake were my refuge night and day. To me this was the only way to feel connected to other people.
Sadly, it created an addiction which started to take me further away from human contact.
Today, you might notice this addiction in yourself. It’s very similar to our reliance on social media. It makes you falsely feel part of society but in reality, it doesn’t replace our need for human contact and being part of a tribe.
As my loneliness continued to grow my yearning to leave increased. Each day at work was marked off as I wasted days thinking about returning home. When I went home to my parents’ house on the weekends it suddenly boosted my happiness, but made going back to work so much harder.
This is no lie – these days were some of the most isolating of my life.
So why did I feel so anxious and stressed?
Why do I feel so lonely – Your Lost Tribe
The late neuroscientist John Cacioppo was one of the first researchers to try and understand how loneliness leads to stress.
He recruited one hundred participants, provided them with heart rate monitors, note pads and test tubes. He then asked them to go about their daily business and complete three tasks. When the alert sounded record their heart rate, note down how lonely or connected they felt, and take a sample of spit for the test tube.
When Cacioppo’s team analysed all the data they found some alarming trends.
Feeling lonely caused cortisol levels (your stress hormone) to sky-rocket. The results showed that becoming acutely lonely was as stressful as experiencing a physical attack. Johann Hari, the author of the book Lost Connections, described the impact of loneliness as causing as much stress as being punched by a stranger.
Think about it.
If every day you feel lonely equates to being repeatedly assaulted by a stranger, the obvious result is you’re going to get very ill.
The research found that you were three times more likely to get the flu virus. Other studies have shown that loneliness has the same effects as obesity and that loneliness causes a significant amount of depression and anxiety in our society.
Cacioppo turned his mind to understanding why anxiety and depression was caused by loneliness. He came to understand that we are tribal in nature. We, as human beings, evolved to hunt and live in small, highly-connected groups with strong support networks for hunting, working and social support.
Tribe members knew that being isolated from the community meant that you were more susceptible to attacks by predators or starvation. That fear meant you didn’t move far from the tribe and became encoded in our DNA.
Of course, today certainly in our modern, Western world, we no longer fear the tiger. We’re free to travel and locate ourselves away from our tribes without fear of being eaten.
The problem is, however, that the tribe-craving core of our brain doesn’t recognise this, and if you don’t find a new tribe or have strong social connections then you’ll see your stress hormones soar.
And there’s something else which is much more disturbing.
Cacioppo’s work led him to investigate further and look at how to measure loneliness.
He started to measure something called “micro-awakenings.”
This is when you aren’t in a deep sleep when the deep, primal part of your brain thinks it needs to be alert for an attack from a predator. It means your body has moved from a deep, restful sleep to a lighter state of unconsciousness. Too many of these micro-awakenings can lead to you feeling tired, lethargic during the day or even in more extreme cases to sleep disorders.
And in our modern world if you’re lonely you’ll have more micro-awakenings because you’re feeling isolated and away from your own tribe.
Cacioppo’s research team measured micro-awakening in people still living like our ancestral tribes –people like the Hutterites or the Amish, living simplistic, communal based existences. These groups displayed the lowest level of loneliness. And this showed that loneliness isn’t inevitable but more a product of the way we live now.
Finding your work friends – a new tribe
So, you might be asking did I find a new tribe or did my addiction to computer games ruin my opportunity to build a career in that company?
The answer is yes.
My anxieties stayed with me until my very last day working at that company.
As you can imagine I not only found myself anxious, but it also impacted many other areas of my life. Without listing all my problems, it’s important to recognise that you can naturally move from excelling to a short-term crisis.
Remember as a child when you tried to spin a yoyo, sometimes it went up and down the string, but sometimes you missed the bounce at the bottom and it got stuck. The only way was to recoil it. That recoiling is you bouncing back, returning from a crisis back to thriving. It’s a natural part of life.
Have a look at the mental health continuum below which clearly shows the different bandings.
Remember if you’re hanging about in the crisis box for a long period you’re going to need help.
For me, I can vividly recall the day when I drove away from the office gates and back to my parent’s house. The loneliness and anxiety seemed to disappear as quickly as it arrived.
Because I neither had the understanding nor knowledge of what was happening to me – I didn’t understand why loneliness causes serious mental health problems.
You might ask why didn’t I tell my employer? Basically, I was too scared of looking weak and a failure. This wasn’t the fault of my employer or boss it was just that mental health wasn’t something which we discussed.
What this tells me is that being lonely and isolated is more a result of our environment, but if you make changes there’s hope in you reconnecting with society.
That’s what I want to help you do.
Finding Your Tribe
Remember living and working in a connected society is the best way to beat loneliness.
Don’t wait or deny it – if you’re in crisis mode or really struggling to get help straight away. Acceptance is the first step in getting yourself out of your position.
See your doctor, call a professional, tell someone about how you feel.
For me, the simplest way to prevent loneliness was to make being part of a tribe my priority.
Think about this before joining a new company, moving house or if you need to find a new tribe.
I’ve put together some questions you should ask yourself when you’re making changes in your tribal life. If you can answer yes to many of them, then you’re more likely to feel part of a local tribe and community.
When joining a Company (Tribe):
Before joining or relocating within a company ask these questions about your new community:
- Is the company more about people than processes?
- Do they value participation and equality?
- Does the company value an individual’s values and beliefs?
- Does the company have a thriving social scene both inside and outside work?
- Do they sponsor a local team?
- Are there regular social events in your office?
- Do employees work locally?
- Do employees have similar interests?
- Are they involved in local community groups?
- Is accommodation near the office and in a vibrant part of town?
Influencing your manager (Tribal Leader):
You’ve started work so it’s important to encourage a community spirit in your team. If you want to enhance the tribal community do this:
- Encourage your manager to bring everyone together for regular face to face meetings.
- Ask that lunch time or breakfast is an informal team gathering.
- Promote a monthly night out or drink after work.
- Support a local community project.
- Plan a yearly trip and overnight stay to help team members connect.
- Ask for feedback on how to improve connections.
- Allow team members to work on the same objectives.
You (Active Tribal Member):
If you want to be part of a tribe go out there and connect with people. You’ll soon feel the benefits both with your mental and physical health.
Think like a new tribal member:
- Are you getting involved with social activities inside and out work?
- Have you reduced your social media and technology usage?
- Have you set-up or became an active member of a local group?
- In the last week, have you asked a college or friend out for a coffee?
- Have you told someone about your struggles?
- Have you helped a colleague or neighbour?
- Have you tried to find new friends? Remember, don’t judge people on that first interaction. Get to know them over a number of weeks or months. Be brave and think about growing your tribe.
- Make sure you speak with your doctor or professional if you’re struggling or in crisis.
Hopefully, you now understand how to cope with loneliness. Being part of a community at work and home is the best your best option. Don’t try and solve it through social media or online gaming.
Find a new tribe when you feel alone and work on those relationships until they blossom. It may take months but I can assure you the effort is worth it.
If you want more advice why not contact us to find out how we can help you build that tribe. Our coaching solutions offer loads of advice and guidance.
Oh and that picture is of me supporting the special care baby unit at York hospital with the nursing team – I now feel part of their tribe and the fight against cancer. 🙂