I'm lonely, don't bother me
What’s the image that comes to mind? Is it a one woman business working out of an office on a remote industrial estate because the rent is cheap? Or perhaps you think of a home worker, employed by a company but because they have to cut costs and office space is at a premium they’re working from home most of the time. Or maybe it’s a salesperson on the road for all of the working day. Or it could be someone in a busy office surrounded by other people but feeling lonely because they just don’t fit.
Why does it matter? Why should we talk about it? Because neuroscience has demonstrated that loneliness produces a chemical reaction in our brains. That reaction drives the hormones that make us feel depressed, that reduce confidence. When women have issues about self-image and self-worth anyway, then loneliness will aggravate that. It needs to be recognised and tackled.
Loneliness of language
Consider, for example, being in an environment where English is not your first language. For those who have never lived and worked in another country it’s difficult to imagine the barrier that this can cause. Or maybe you have a learning difficulty or hearing/speech issues, or a really strong regional accent. We get so used to being able to converse that it’s particularly isolating if you’re struggling to find the right word at the right time, or make yourself understood. It knocks your confidence and makes you feel ridiculous. Factor into the mix that you might be a woman with child care responsibilities wanting to work full or part-time or run a business, (we all know how difficult that is at the best of times!) then you can start to see how big a barrier it can become.
How often have you been in an workplace where you don’t like the culture, or the managerial style of the boss? For whatever reason, it somehow doesn’t fit your values, whether that’s consciously or unconsciously. You start to withdraw from the general hubbub of the office, or factory, or building site and as you withdraw the loneliness starts to creep in.
Or you have wonderful ideas and get really excited about something but then can’t find anyone to share those ideas with, or support you. You feel alone and the ideas get dismissed or abandoned.
Then there’s the worker who spends all their time with customers but they run their own business or work alone so the friendships that would normally develop in a working environment, with a team around you just don’t happen. You may be keeping busy, you may be reaching your targets but you get lonely.
Step 1: Identify the problem
In our conversations we’ve found that women don’t actually recognise that they’re lonely. They’re so busy doing, they don’t take time to be. The loneliness is hidden and when you make them stop and ask themselves if they’re lonely the response can be quite surprising. Put aside some time for yourself and identify whether you are alone, whether you are lonely.
Step 2: Find a solution
The solution is simple because we know from neuroscience that by having meaningful contact with people the hormones shift us from depressive to optimistic. Neurons are fired that would otherwise remain static which energises us and improves confidence. How you go about that requires a certain amount of planning and determination. Here’s a few suggestions that we’ve heard.
- Force yourself to network. That’s not just going to social events or business meetings and saying hello. That’s just meeting and saying hello. Identify one or two people each time that you’d like to have a more in-depth conversation with. That can be about business or it can just be finding out a bit more about each other over coffee. Use those to develop the type of relationship that you would have had if you were working in a team, the water cooler conversation or smoker’s alley type of conversation. They are a great way of sharing information and joining people together.
- If you’re a home worker and this doesn’t happen already, ask your team leader to set up regular meetings so you can share information and maintain relationships. Factor in a bit of time before or after to have the water cooler conversation.
- If you have language difficulties, volunteer to work with people where you have to practice speaking. Join a book club or other group where not only will you improve the language, you’ll also stop feeling lonely. If you have children speak English to them for half of the day.
- If you’re in a work culture that doesn’t fit, that makes you feel lonely then take control and look for something else. It may take time but the fact that you’ve made a decision will improve your confidence levels which will help dismantle the loneliness. It may even change the hidden signals of ‘don’t bother me’ that you might have been giving out and encourage people to start making positive contact with you.
Once you’ve recognised the loneliness and the reasons for it, you can put plans in place to deal with it. So go on, make those connections and get the neurons firing!
Have you experienced loneliness in the workplace? What did you do about it? Share your stories and help others tackle their barriers.