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THE INDISPENSABLE SKILL

The need for connection and community is primal,

as fundamental as the need for air, water, and food.

  Dean Ornish

 

The Loneliness of Work

Drive down the ramp that connects the New Jersey Turnpike to the Holland Tunnel and on your right, almost scraping against the roadway, you’ll see a large red-brick building.  Today the building’s ten floors are being transformed into condominium apartments, but for the twenty years my father worked there, it was owned by National Cold Storage. 

      Each morning, a flotilla of trucks filled with frozen foods would back into the loading bays.  My father’s job was to stack the food onto a pallet then take it down an elevator to the freezer room where it would be stored at a temperature of -20 degrees Fahrenheit.  Doing this required him to dress as if he lived in the Tundra with clothing so thick it added an extra ten pounds to his frame.

      The work was exhausting but be never complained, in part because it paid the bills but also because it was a job where he had friends; men of a similar age and background with whom he would share stories about births and weddings and life’s everyday events.  They were a team, his crew.   When he came home at night, he would talk about them as if they were part of the family.  Because for him, they were.

An Empty Office

Several years ago, I decided to change jobs, primarily because the position I had at that time required a two-hour commute both in the morning and back at night.  My new office, a satellite of the company’s headquarters, was fifteen minutes from my home.  It sounded great until I discovered that nobody ever came into the office.  The people who worked there were either in sales or field technicians all of whom were constantly on the road.  Occasionally, someone would stop by if they were in the area but for the most part it was just me.

      At first, being alone wasn’t a problem; I had more than enough work to keep me busy. But over time, not seeing anyone or having anybody to talk with for the entire day, began to take a toll.  I started to drift and became bored.  Eventually what promised to be a great job turned into a prison that I couldn’t wait to escape by the end of the day.

      People are by nature social animals.  We seek community, need to make connections, belong.  Which is why creating strong bonds and relationships with others is critical not only to our happiness but to our success at work.  Yet by this measure, today’s workplace is failing us.

      Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called loneliness in the workplace a national epidemic. A host of studies appear to back his claim: Nearly three-fourths of Americans experience loneliness, according to a 2016 Harris poll. For many it’s not an occasional occurrence but a persistent problem. A 2014 survey by Relate revealed that 42 per cent of employees don’t have a single friend at the office. The 2012 report by California State University and the Wharton School of Business found that loneliness at work triggers emotional withdrawal.  According to a Gallup study Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, 30 percent of respondents who had a best friend at work were seven times more likely to be engaged at their jobs than those who didn’t.

      To help us feel more in sync with our colleagues and surroundings, many companies utilize personality tests, particularly during the hiring process.  The idea is to identify people whose personality matches that of the company’s culture. This, in turn, is supposed to ensure that workers are happy and more productive. According to one estimate, up to 70 percent of Americans have taken a personality test as part of a job application.  The most widely used personality inventory in the world is the Myers-Briggs type indicator, with more than 3.5 million assessments administered each year.

Alone Together

It doesn’t matter where you are:  in a supermarket, at the doctor’s office, or simply waiting to pick up your kids at school; people are disengaged.  Rather than smile or talk with one another, we stare down at our smartphones, searching for the latest post or notification from one of our online “friends.”  Fewer people go out to malls, preferring to make their purchases over the Internet.  Sports such as Major League Baseball and the National Football League continue to report declining attendance.  Which is no surprise.  Why go to a game when you can watch it from the comfort of your home on a 60-inch plasma television replete with slow motion, instant replay and a host of other features designed to glue you to the set. Today’s technologies pervade everything we do to the degree that we increasingly do everything alone.

      The workplace is no exception; if anything, it mimics our social interactions outside the office.  How many of us have sat at meetings where almost everyone present is continually checking their emails and text messages? Or worse, excusing themselves so they can take another “urgent” call.  Our work arrangements serve us no better.  With an increasing number of employees working remotely, the only interactions with their fellow workers are through conference calls or collaborative software. Many people, such as freelancers and contractors, don’t even work for companies.  Instead, they’re members of online platforms, searching for and bidding on virtual projects. 

      In an interview conducted with CNBC, Dr. Karen Sobel Lojeski addressed how time and distance are key contributors to loneliness at work:

 

      As of 2018, the monthly employment statistics reveal that a larger percentage of Americans are working than ever before.   The problem is that an increasing number of us are working with strangers, without any shared purpose or connection.

An Absence of Trust

The Toxic Workplace has become a catchall for corporate policies and practices that are detrimental to a company’s employees. Such workplaces often include a lack of diversity and opportunity for advancement, unreasonable work hours, dysfunctional management, and constant harassment.  The result can be stress, anger, distrust, sickness and even death.

      The 2018 Work Stress Survey, conducted by Harris Interactive, reveals that more than eight in 10 Americans are stressed by their jobs.  The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work reports that over half of the 550 million working days lost annually from absenteeism “are stress related.”   The American Institute of Stress claims that workplace stress costs the American economy some $300 billion each year. 

      With so much stress coming at them from so many corners of the workplace, is it any wonder that people feel isolated and alone?  Or that a report from LinkedIn Learning finds that 37 percent of employees say they have no sense of a career path with 23 percent admitting that they feel like they are “on a treadmill going nowhere."  We come to work for something more than a paycheck and right now we’re not getting it.

Modeling Japan

In 1974, Hiro Onada, a former intelligence officer in the Imperial Japanese Army, walked out of a jungle in the Philippines after more than 30 years in hiding.  Aside from amazement as to how he could not have known that the Second World War was over, the question that staggered most people was how Onada had survived the loneliness.  Looking at present day Japan, the answer appears obvious.

      Since the 1970s, Japan has been held up as a model of economic efficiency.  Rising like a phoenix from the ashes of World War II, Japan Inc. became an economic powerhouse.  But at a cost.  Grueling work hours combined with a total dedication to one’s job and company have eaten away at traditional structures such as marriage and multi-generational households.  One outcome has been the distinctly Japanese phenomenon known as karoshi, translated as death by overwork.  Another chilling trend is the increasing number of people called hikomori, who live in total isolation refusing to come out of their apartments often for a year or more.   A survey by the insurance company Meiji Yasuda Life found that 30 percent of Japanese men in their 20s and 30s have never dated a woman.

      To combat Japan’s national state of loneliness, tech companies have created high-touch solutions that range from robot dogs and life-like sex dolls to virtual-reality companions.  The Japanese need for connection has even spawned an entire rent-a-family industry.  One company, Family Romance, employs hundreds of actors ready to serve as your husband, father, or best friend -- for a price.  Customers can even fill out an order form allowing them to select a stand-in’s personal features such as height, weight, hair color, and more.  The company’s theme is printed on it business card: “More pleasure than the pleasure reality can provide.”

      Is this the future?  Is work making us so isolated and detached that very soon the best we can hope for is a fantasy life of friends and happiness?

Going Back Home

When I was in the seventh grade, my parents moved to the suburbs.   I hated it.  Like any kid that’s suddenly uprooted, I felt betrayed and alone.  My mother pointed out that I now had a yard, and trees I could climb, and a bedroom of my own.  I didn’t care because what I didn’t have was any friends.

      Then school started.  I remember the first day, walking into a class of strangers, all of them staring. At lunch, I sat eating by myself at an empty table.  Then something odd happened.  A group of guys from my home room got up and came over and started talking to me; asking about what street I lived on, how did I like the suburbs compared to the city, whether I played any sports.  A few minutes more and we were all laughing and talking about a field trip the school had planned for the following week.  By the end of the day, whatever fears I had about being alone had vanished. As long as I had friends, there was nothing to worry about.

      Forty years later, my father called me up and said he wanted go back to visit the old neighborhood.  My mother had passed away the previous year and he was lonely.  On the ride down, we laughed about growing up in the city and people we knew.  Then we arrived and our mood immediately changed. Saturday afternoon and the entire block was deserted; no handball games or mothers sitting on the stoops or radios blasting through the open windows. “Where is everybody?” my father asked incredulously. It didn’t take me long to find the answer.  “See that,” I said pointing to the dish antennas that crenelated the tops of the apartment buildings.  “Why come out when you have everything you need inside your apartment?”

      Why indeed.  Why call someone when you can text them?  Why drive to the mall when you can buy it online?  Why sit in the cold when you can watch the game on television?  Why commute to an office when you can get the same amount of work done at home? Why reach out to someone when there’s the possibility you might be rejected?  Why take a risk when there’s a chance that you might fail?

      For all we’ve gained over the past fifty years, something valuable has been lost and it’s not just nostalgia. For all our comforts and material wealth, we feel adrift and alone.  Not just at work but in our personal lives. Facebook fails to satisfy the same as remote work and virtual teams.  That’s why we join Meetups, take Zumba classes, go back to Church and sing in the  choir.  People need people.  Did I just say that?   If I did, then apologies to Barbara Streisand.  When the saccharine starts to utter profound, you know that something bad is going on.

Dozens of global companies are now recognizing the importance of reversing what I have coined "virtual distance" in the workplace — the detachment that happens when conversations occur through smart devices, and when devices distort context and mediate our relationships. This detachment directly impacts productivity and performance, but by using analytics, virtual distance can properly be measured to identify where it is affecting performance, leadership, morale, job satisfaction and innovation.

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