Workplace Loneliness is Killing Us: A #SHRM19 Interview with Stuart Chittenden

Years ago, my husband and I found ourselves in a place where we felt completely disconnected. We longed for meaningful relationships with the people around us. For all of our efforts reaching out and doing everything we could to engage our community, they just weren’t reciprocated. We started to wonder if it was us, or them, or something else altogether. I wrote several blog posts on this topic (which ironically, caused further separation). Making a long story short, we ended up moving to another state. And almost instantly, we found our community. In fact, such deep community and connectedness that we have become hyper-sensitive to those around us who are experiencing loneliness. 
The reality is that loneliness doesn’t end at work. It doesn’t necessarily begin there either. But because most of us (at least those of us working 40 plus hours per week) spend the majority of our waking hours at work and with our coworkers, that loneliness tags along with us, and can have a profound impact on how we engage and perform. 


Thus, I find the 2019 SHRM Annual Conference and Exposition (#SHRM19) session: "Workplace Loneliness Is Killing Us," presented by Stuart Chittenden, founder of Squishtalks, to be of great interest. What does it mean to be lonely, how is loneliness manifested at work, and what does that mean for the workplace?

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of connecting with Stuart:
Thank you for speaking with me today! It’s truly a pleasure to meet you and get to know more about you and, specifically, this session. First, how did your business get the name “Squishtalks?”
About nine years ago, my wife and I started hosting conversation salons in our home. We wanted to have a structure for conversation at a meaningful and deep level, but also one that was allowed to go wherever it wanted to go. We structured it so that we could fit 13 people around our kitchen table at a “squish.” The name just kinda stuck. About three years ago, I exited the partnership I was in, which was a branding and marketing consultancy.  I felt the need to respond to this calling to see if this conversation thing could be a consultancy that could pay the bills. So, I set up this business, and I kept the name Squishtalks. The camp is divided. Is it absurd, and ridiculous, and undercuts the seriousness of why people pay me? Or does it excite so much curiosity that it is appealing? Thus far, the jury is still out.
That is fantastic! What was the catalyst for making that move from branding to more of the leadership and conversation style salons you would have?
It was a combination of outrage, midlife crisis, and responding to some calling in my life beyond myself. Just turn the news on. Robert Putnam, Political Scientist, talks about our communities being characterized by a shriveled sense of “we.” Just look outside your door. Our social fabric is fraying. I was hitting middle age and I thought, “Is this all there is? And what am I doing to support this?” At that point, I thought the strength I have is using conversation as a way for humans to connect with each other. And I figured if I was going to respond to this calling and indulge the midlife crisis in a positive way, this is what I need to do.
I’m not a researcher in loneliness. And there is no training vocation school where you go to get a qualification as a conversation expert. It’s a subject that I think is relevant. It’s funny to think about HR professionals turning to me and asking “how do I do this?” In many ways, I kinda want to say, “I don’t know. It’s kinda like just being a human… Do the human thing…”
What were the factors that led you to speak on the topic of workplace loneliness? 
A cliché, perhaps, but modern society and contemporary workplaces are beset by forces hindering our ability to connect meaningfully at a human level. Maybe I am a little too romantic, yet I am hoping to contribute to the building of stronger, healthier relationships and organizational communities.
How would you define workplace loneliness?
Loneliness may be defined as the subjective feeling that you lack meaningful relationships or a solid support system. It can be distinguished from being alone, which isn’t necessarily unwelcome for us, depending upon the context. Also, loneliness is not necessarily caused by isolation or exclusion. However, while precise, in some ways these definitions and distinctions don’t aid the general practitioner or layperson seeking to address loneliness. In that sense, I find it helpful to consider that loneliness is an emotional state of feeling apart from others.
Do you think that workplace loneliness is a relatively new phenomenon, or is it something that we're just now talking about? 
As long as humans have formed communities and societies, we have also been subject to the experience of loneliness. It has been talked about in other eras, although the language and cultural context may not align with what we encounter today. Prof. Amelia S. Worsley at Amherst has written about this and suggests that in the 16th and 17th Centuries loneliness related more to spatial concepts, being away from other people and civilization and instead in the wilderness. Worsley arrestingly observes that modern loneliness has moved inwards and that “the wilderness is now inside of us.” Modernity, however, has a different kind of spatial concept wrought through technology. We struggle with this at a human level. How we connect as people and cohere as societies has not kept pace with the facilities afforded by technology. 
I don’t know why loneliness is being discussed more now, but will offer my opinion for discussion. I’ve mentioned technology, which has fulfilled its promise to enable connectivity, but has not delivered on its promise to amplify connection at a meaningfully human level. There are the pressures to be authentic and empowered, yet most of us are unable to cope with the demands that such perfection requires, all the while trying to give the appearance of perfection. Then there are the modern forces – politics, media, socio-economic inequality, racism, bias, and so on –  that are widening rifts between communities. More positively, we are de-stigmatizing issues relating to our mental health and wellbeing, which is a welcome shift in our cultural discourse.
What are some of the ways that HR can identify workplace loneliness in their companies?
On a practical level, I am not aware of any specific assessment tool that HR practitioners can discern a benchmark of loneliness. Engagement assessments with some customized questions may offer a viable alternative in the short-term and are already visible and credible in the field.
Beyond that, while it may sound cynical, HR should consider starting with senior leaders because, first, that is typically where there are more resources, and, secondly, where HR can get organizational buy-in.
It’s really about organic connection.  We come hardwired with this ability to connect with other humans. The truth is there is no simple “one, two, three” that works. What I would suggest is there are principles of conversation that can be brought into the culture. And the way you do that first is by modeling it, and to provide skill building around it. Embed it into training and development programs. Teaching people what some of the principles of conversation are: Curiosity, empathy, listening and courage.
One of the questions that is asked on Gallup's Employee Engagement Survey is "Do you have a best friend at work?" Why do you think this question is so important, and what do the responses reveal to the company in relation to workplace loneliness?
I’ll let Gallup respond to why that is such an important question. This article of theirs is especially relevant, it seems, and includes a statement by a Gallup researcher that you are lonely if the score to this question is low. It also includes this assertion: “'I have a best friend at work’ proved to be the wording best able to discriminate between groups in which friendships are sufficiently supportive and those that have only surface relationships that are unable to withstand adversity.”
What is one of the ways that HR can have the biggest impact on addressing workplace loneliness?
The answer is not mandated “fun” nor forced socialization. What I am suggesting as one way, and not exclusively, is authentic conversation. It is an art that we all have the capacity for and which enables us to encounter others and to be encountered. 
What would you say to the business owner and/or leaders who say that it isn't our place to concern ourselves with this topic? 
“Are you a human?” Although that is obviously too flippant. I am willing to bet, though, that a business owner or leader who is unconcerned about this issue likely has a workplace characterized by loneliness. If they have dysfunctional teams, siloed thinking, low engagement, little creativity, or high turnover, they might wish to reconsider. If they expect their people talent to fully show up in all their potential then this is an important issue.
For the HR professional, we have to ask, are we there to serve the people? Or are we there to serve the hand that feeds us? That’s where the discomfort comes from.
What is the no. 1 thing you hope attendees of your session will take back to their workplace?
That a culture of connection achieved through authentic conversation will not only alleviate loneliness and its ill effects, but will amplify wellbeing and performance.

I want to thank Stuart for the wonderful conversation! I hope this information sparks your interest in learning more about workplace loneliness, and some ways you can begin to build meaningful connections through conversation. Join Stuart at his session Workplace Loneliness Is Killing Us on Monday, June 24, 2019 from 1:30 p.m. - 2:30 p.m. To learn more about Stuart Chittenden and visit his website: Squishtalks.


Originally posted on the HR Shenanigans blog.


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