Workplace productivity sagging? Employee isolation may be a cause

Gloria Dunn-Violin is a professional speaker, preretirement seminar leader and author. She writes the North Bay Business Journal column New Retirement: A Paradigm Shift.

GLORIA DUNN-VIOLIN, BY GLORIA DUNN-VIOLIN

“Americans are far more socially isolated today than they were two decades ago, according to a comprehensive new evaluation about the decline of social ties in the United States,” writes Shanker Vedantam, a reporter from the Washington Post.

When Surgeon General Vivek Murthy was asked, “What is the most prevalent disease in America today?” he answered, “Isolation.”

Yet, Thomas Friedman, author of “Thank You for Being Late” says “human-to-human connection is becoming more important to society than ever.” He projects the need to become part of a group or larger community will “spin off millions of jobs [in the future].”

Isolation is also an issue in the workplace. An academic study in 2011 by California State University and Wharton School of Business, explained why workplace loneliness should matter to business owners. After surveying a sample of 672 workers, Hakan Ozcelik and Sigal Barsade concluded that loneliness at work has a “significant influence on employee work performance. Loneliness also leads to withdrawal from work, weaker productivity, and demotivation.”

“Addressing employee loneliness has become a priority for some companies in the past decade,” says Steven Miranda, managing director at Cornell University’s Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies. As he told Fortune in 2014, “it all counts to a company’s overall performance because without friends, without a feeling of social connection at work, people make less effort.”

Miranda also cites as a risk a decrease in what he calls “discretionary effort”:

“When you walk into the office every morning, you’re either thinking, ‘I’m pumped about being here. I’m going to get so much done,’ or, ‘How quickly can five o’clock come?’ I would bet my bottom dollar that people who are lonely and disengaged at work deliver far less discretionary effort than people who have a support system or a go-to person [at work].”

Age bias is one of the hurtful causes of isolation in the workplace. Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging & Work found that when older workers experience ageism, they are less engaged and more anxious to retire. Ageism, unfortunately, exists in many companies. It is a byproduct of misperceptions and misinformation that have been reinforced over years.

Discrimination of older workers can be overt, such as age limits for hiring, or take more subtle forms, such as allegations that people lack career potential, or have too much experience. Other forms of discrimination include limited access to training. Older workers are routinely passed up for promotions, forced out of jobs, or simply not given the chance to excel. These kinds of ageist attitudes don’t just hurt older workers, they hurt their employers.

It’s high time for employers and employees alike to rethink their misperceptions. Older workers are important contributors, and often bring unique skills and outlooks to the workplace. Discriminating against these workers is not only unjust, but also detrimental to business success.

Thriving businesses succeed with people who can develop concepts into products and services. Companies need to understand that older employees are a vital resource. Companies lose advantage without their expertise and experience.

The first step in eliminating workplace isolation is to develop a company culture that encourages respect for others and supports healthy work relationships. Then guide employees on how to develop workplace friends, and provide opportunities for a multigenerational workforce to come together in a non-threatening environment to get to know one another.

Since trust is inherent in developing friendships, employees should be counseled to develop them slowly and be mindful of crossing personal and professional lines too quickly. Another tip for creating friends at work is to find safe topics to share, like learning about common interests — music, hobbies and sports. As employees get to know each other better and feel more comfortable, they can decide whether or not to share more personal information.

According to Mahatma Gandhi, “all humanity is one undivided and indivisible family,” and without this sense of community, we are left feeling lonely and lost.