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?
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?
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?
How would you define workplace loneliness?
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?
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?
What is one of the ways that HR can have the biggest impact on addressing workplace loneliness?
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?
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?
Originally posted on the HR Shenanigans blog.