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Dr. Carr's Corner

Purposeful Leadership through a Challenging Season

The upcoming holiday season is often thought of as a time of joy and love. Still, as the pandemic persists for many people, it will be a period of continued uncertainty, loss of normal connections, disrupted families, and loneliness. Holiday gatherings typically serve as important anchors to families and friends—a time of togetherness and celebration. Unfortunately for many, it won’t be. It will be a time of isolation. The inability to celebrate holidays as usual is just one more stressor experienced by many over the past 18 months.

Loneliness is a normal emotional response that everyone experiences at times, most commonly in a new environment or setting. However, when these feelings persist, loneliness can contribute to mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and an increased use or dependence on substances to cope. In fact, research shows that the impact of loneliness on mortality is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day in healthcare outcomes and costs with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, compromised immunity, increased risk of depression, and shortened lifespan. Some employees may not even recognize that they’re lonely or may experience the stigma of loneliness, compounding the effect like other mental health conditions. Some may feel uncomfortable or ashamed to disclose their feelings of loneliness.

The good news is that a strong connection to purpose and improving self-care practices can compensate for the adverse impact of loneliness on life outcomes.

How can we better manage feelings of loneliness?

Increase self-awareness:

Acknowledge and Better Understand Our Feelings: Staying curious about what we’re experiencing and how that impacts our feelings can keep us engaged and less lonely. Practice acceptance. Staying in the moment and honoring our feelings encourages us to practice patience and self-compassion, and it helps us discern what is going on under the surface. Many people are experiencing similar feelings, especially this year. Talking to others who may share your feelings (either via the Internet or in real life) can help you and others to feel less alone.

Be Aware of and Manage the Inner Chatter: The close of a year tends to be a time of reflection. Be attentive to the difference between self-reflection and self-evaluation. It’s one thing to look back with curiosity and interest for insights and possible changes to be made in the future. It’s another thing to focus on the negative narrative of one’s shortcomings and our inner critic, which contributes to our loneliness by constantly reminding us we are unworthy of the life we desire and by alienating us from those we care about. If we sense that our inner critic is taking over, possibly driving us into self-destructive behaviors, we can try to bring our attention back to what is important to us. We can take actions that reconnect us to “our purpose, our why,” those experiences, people, and things around us that really matter.

Try out some new things.

Connect to Your Why and Focus More on Things That Matter Most: Many of us feel obligated to spend time with certain people who don’t make us feel that great during the holidays. But whether we choose to honor those obligations or not, it’s valuable to set aside some time to be with people and things that matter most — especially those that are healthy and meaningful. Energy focused on time on activities that bring out our best with the people who matter most is what this time is all about. Find a balance between obligations and meaningful experiences.

Focus on Best Self Qualities: Taking 2 minutes out of the day to focus on best self qualities builds self-awareness and self-esteem. “Focused-attention meditation” is just one way to move our focus beyond dwelling on faults and into more positive mindsets. The basics are common to most meditations: find a quiet place, and practice steady breathing. Focused attention on the one aspect of our best qualities broadens and deepens our appreciation for ourselves.

Practice Gratitude: Gratitude is a remedy for many negative thoughts and feelings, and it helps to create new neural pathways and feel more positive. Maintaining a gratitude journal is a wonderful exercise to cultivate an attitude of gratitude — a written record of what we value most in life is a quick pick-me-up when feelings of doubt surface. Consider a video gratitude call and have everyone ‘go around the table’ to share what they feel grateful for in this moment.

Volunteer Time for a Cause: Schedule a time to help out for a good cause. Volunteerism is a win-win-win. Meet other generous people, make a positive difference in communities, and feel good while doing it. Volunteering helps us feel socially responsible and beats back feelings of loneliness. Giving to others helps us to forget about our own challenges. Charitable organizations are everywhere.

Rekindle Relationships: Reconnecting with an old friend or making new friends is an important ingredient to bringing meaning and joy into our lives. Don’t give up on them if an acquaintance or family member still means a lot. Maybe they’re waiting for you to make the first move? Take it slow. Technology and social media make it easy to get started. A text, email, or even a Facebook post can be the first in a series of small, breakthrough steps.

How can leaders and organizations better support their teams during this time?

Work can be both a source of support and social connectedness. Healthy relationships in the workplace are necessary to achieve work goals, maintain work-life balance, and maintain connectedness. While technology connects us in and out of the workplace, it can also amplify a sense of isolation. The movement to remote working without an engagement/connection strategy can increase the feeling of loneliness, isolation, or being cut off from the rest of the team. This can have a significant effect on work output, limit individual and team performance, reduce creativity, and impair reasoning and decision-making. While loneliness is an emerging workplace concern, employers can make a difference in effectively addressing loneliness.

Be Proactive in Offering Support:

Check-In Regularly: Keep the humanity of your employees in mind. It can be easy to forget about people’s personal struggles and stressors with so much going on. Set reminders to check in with your team. Reaching out simply to see how someone’s doing — especially when there’s no special occasion — makes them feel valued and cared about. A simple tip like creating a calendar event (e.g., “call Sarah,” “email Bill,” or “text Jane”) and scheduling it to occur regularly help to create a positive habit.

Tune Your Social Radar: Sharpen your emotional and social intelligence by thinking about what someone really needs from you. It might simply be empathy or someone to listen. Why It Matters — Your social radar is that intuitive sense that helps you determine what people might be looking to you for. The more you hone it, the better you’re able to respond. Try a little experiment: If someone reaches out to you, try to sense what kind of support they may need — and then ask them. See if your intuition was accurate. It’s important to practice making this a habit – not that you’re responsible for everyone’s needs, but it’s good to reduce your self-focus and think about someone else’s experience.

Support Employees in Creative Ways: Organizations may need to allow their people greater job flexibility during the holidays. With the continued uncertainty and disrupted workplace, engage and solicit teams on their needs. Allow teams to offer up ideas on how best to keep connected, strengthen team relationships, cohesiveness and celebrate successes.

Try out some new things.

Lead Yourself First: Model and promote positive self-care. Managing your energy allows you to not only model positive behaviors but will enable our smartphones’ battery levels pretty well, you to show up as your best self for others! Your most precious gift is giving the highest quality and quantity of energy to those people and things that matter most. It is really important to recharge your system and re-energize. We all know pretty well the battery levels of our smartphones but do we know our own ‘battery level’? Giving your mind, body, and soul what it needs regularly allows you to face each day with your best self to deal with whatever life brings you. Start with simple things you can control: move often, eat healthy, stay hydrated, schedule mini-breaks to disengage from your computer and work.

Normalize that Sometimes People Experience Loneliness: As loneliness is part of the human experience, assume that some team individuals may struggle to form deeper connections. As you connect with your team, try to make the conversation about it in a normalized way and not a stigmatized condition. Expressing to your teams that many people are feeling this way and, if you feel lonely, you’re not the only one. Of course, you need to create a psychologically safe and trusting environment. Hence, people must feel that they can share their emotions or reach out to the appropriate individuals for help if they feel overwhelmed, isolated, or lost.

Promote Effective Programs and Actions: Encourage employees to seek help when needed (e.g., through EAP, HR, and other employee support services). Promote programs and activities that offer the opportunity to understand the importance of creating healthy work relationships. Encourage the use of PTO for a mental health day or to simply unplug for a bit. Reach out to your team members personally who have taken very little time off, encourage them to use their PTO days, even if in small increments. Hearing from the leader the benefits of regular breaks through PTO helps empower teams to take positive action and reduce stigma.

Create More Opportunities to Connect: Encourage employees to meet and talk and connect on a human level, not just for work-related projects and meetings but to learn more about each other, including personal experiences and interests outside of work. Using new technology platforms can allow for virtual casual conversations, coffees, serendipitous connections, an informal place to connect socially and build relationships across areas other than work.

The pandemic and its forced physical separation of employees has amplified a growing trend of workplace loneliness. New skills and approaches are needed to facilitate relationships and reduce feelings of employee isolation and disconnection. Today’s workforce expects more. By helping your employees find and live with greater purpose each day while meeting essential needs that hold them back, you can strengthen your organization’s culture and performance.

About the Author

Bob Carr Leadership Photo

Robert Carr, MD, MPH, FACPM

Chief Medical Officer, Kumanu

Robert Carr was most recently Senior Vice President & Corporate Medical Director at GlaxoSmithKline and on the faculty at Georgetown University. He received his Doctor of Medicine from the University of Miami School of Medicine and his Masters of Public Health and Preventive Medicine Residency from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Hygiene and Public Health. Bob also served as the President of the American College of Preventive Medicine

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