The lonely

Nora Akins

Vivek Murthy, M.D. identified loneliness as a serious health condition when he was the U.S. surgeon general. The human brain is wired to be social. Being social helped protect us from predators and increased our ability to get food. Because of that wiring, loneliness creates stress and stress can elevate the hormone cortisol and inflammation which leads to disease. Chronic stress also reduces pre-frontal cortex brain function that controls abstract thinking, emotional regulation and decision making.

A number of variables may have caused the feeling of loneliness to double since the 1980s in America. Several factors have increased — the use of technology, living alone, telecommuting, independent contractors and population age which may contribute. However, working in an open-plan workspace with congenial colleagues doesn’t prevent loneliness because most work relationships are based on reciprocity (exchange relationships).

Some studies indicate technology is isolating us from real relationships. Slack CEO, and co-founder of Flickr, Stewart Butterfield was interviewed by Harvard Business Review (HBR) writer Laura Amico. Slack developed a chat and file sharing platform used in many industries. Butterfield stated we are in the early stages of learning how to communicate electronically. Technology is great for information sharing, especially details and keeping things on the record. Face to face conversations are needed to deepen understanding and exchange thoughts and feelings through facial expression and body language.

John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, and Stephanie Cacioppo, director of the High-Performance Electrical Neuroimaging Laboratory, both at the University of Chicago conducted a five-year study on loneliness with the U.S. Army. They found you can reduce loneliness through exercises that build emotional strength and resilience. Exercises were created to help soldiers develop and sustain positive relationships. Soldiers learned that choosing to work at the cost of time with friends is isolating behavior; and choosing positive social interactions makes people feel closer and happy.

This study recognized exchange behaviors are often negative (tit for tat) which increases our sense of isolation. Learning to replace these bad habits with positive interactions was the goal of the social fitness program. The entry level class includes:

• Find time in the day to have an unplugged conversation with someone.

• Do something helpful for someone each day.

• Choose to work together on a project rather than divide labor and use the opportunity to speak with each other.

• Diversify who you speak with and what you speak about to share unpredicted thoughts.

• Just say hello.

It seems to me sharing a strong sense of purpose would form communal relationships among employees even where exchange relationships must exist. Clearly, positive interactions build healthy and respectful workplaces.

Nora T. Akins, of Strategic Management provides management training and refines human resource systems to help employers build respectful workplaces. Reach Nora at 219 873-1735 or

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