It is lonely at the top — and everywhere else in the company

“It’s lonely at the top” is an expression that usually is used to describe those leading an organization. CEOs of large corporations and leaders of countries are the ones to whom this term usually is applied.

It turns out entrepreneurs also can be lonely. For that matter, many people working in organizations big and small today are lonely. Loneliness and the problems related to it can decrease productivity in organizations.

Automation and working remotely are two of the reasons the number of people who report being lonely at work has doubled since the 1980s. A 2017 Gallup poll showed 43 percent of Americans do some of their work alone, up 4 percent from 2012.

“Loneliness is not a clinical condition, but it can make an individual vulnerable to sadness or even clinical depression depending on a number of other life factors, such as coping skills, loss, or relationship difficulties,” according to Jonathan Appel, professor of psychology and criminal justice at Tiffin University. “The irony is that more and more people are seeking connection with others, but are doing this via social media, which is actually resulting in disconnection and even depression.”

While little research has been done in the U.S. to measure the loss of productivity that is related to loneliness, a recent U.K. study estimates employers lose up to $3.5 billion due to issues related to this loneliness. The U.K. recently appointed a minister of loneliness to deal with this in and out of the workplace.

It can also take its toll on individuals’ health. One study said loneliness can be as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

A recent study published in the Harvard Business Review said lawyers and doctors are among the loneliest professions. They were followed closely by engineers and scientists. Not surprisingly, occupations involving high degrees of social interaction such as social work, marketing and sales are the least lonely.

Jim Gucker, assistant professor of business law at Tiffin University, said attorneys are the top of the loneliest list because of the nature of the legal profession.

“Due to confidentiality issues, it is unethical in most situations to discuss the details of a case with people outside the firm,” Gucker said.”

“The profession can require a significant amount of alone time spent researching, reading, preparing documents and contemplating strategy,” he added.

Entrepreneurs experience their own types of loneliness. Often, they launch a venture against the advice of family and friends who do not believe in what they are doing. Entrepreneurs have successes to share with the team, stakeholders and customers. But they also suffer failures and setbacks. Seldom do they share those with others.

It is important for entrepreneurs to recognize when loneliness is leading to depression and reduced productivity. They need to ask for help when they need it.

Colleagues and managers are in positions to recognize workers suffering from loneliness. The signs of loneliness such as social withdrawal and diminished mood may be difficult for managers to identify. Lonely workers are more likely to become isolated, dissatisfied, and leave an organization.

The single most important leadership action to reduce loneliness is to look for occasions for communicating with colleagues. Understand what makes their work meaningful to them, and then connect that to what makes it meaningful for other colleagues and the organization.

“After 30 years of studying, treating and teaching human behavior, I have come to the conclusion that social contact and social community is an instinctual and even biological drive. Psychological studies have indicated the swiftest way to make a ‘normal’ person emotionally disturbed is to isolate them,” Appel stated.

Perry Haan is professor of marketing and entrepreneurship at Tiffin University. He can be reached at (419) 618-2867.

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