As we head into summer and—for some of us—return to a physical office, our schedules are filling up with social events that may be leaving us unfulfilled emotionally. We might be surrounded by people all day, but left feeling disconnected and lonely, due to the lack of meaningful connections and not being able to express our true selves.
Levels of loneliness in the US were increasing before the pandemic and have increased over the past two years. According to a 2021 national survey by Harvard researchers, 36% of reported feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time,” 61% of young people aged 18-25 degrees and 51% of mothers with young children reported these degrees of loneliness.
These same stats are relevant in the workplace. In 2019, a survey of more than 10,000 US employees found that 61% of felt lonely, a seven-point increase since 2018. Nearly half felt isolated from others and their relationship with others was not meaningful. More than a third felt other people do not respect their skills and abilities. In 2012, a Harvard Business Review survey found that half of the CEOs experienced feelings of loneliness.
Research links chronic loneliness with an increased likelihood of dementia, cognitive decline, immunity issues, and heart disease, which contributes to a shorter lifespan. It has also been linked to negative impacts on individual and team performance, not to mention lower levels of life satisfaction and quality of life.
In light of this information, it’s important to clarify what is meant by creating more meaningful social connections. In her 2015 book, Daring Greatly, Dr. Brene Brown defines connection as “… the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
The Three Elements Needed to Foster Connection
Fostering meaningful connections in one’s work and in life takes more than simply creating opportunities for people to interact with each other, like happy hours and team lunches. There is a qualitative aspect that requires attention to how people feel because of those interactions. Do they feel valued? Are they respected contributors who are equally and fairly included in workplace operations or in group activities?
Social psychologist and researcher, Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstand studies the link between social connectedness and health. In her research, she refers to social connection as physical, behavioral, cognitive, and emotional, with three major components:
- Structural support via the physical or behavioral presence of others in our lives.
- Functional support via perception that support is available to us.
- Quality support via the positive or negative emotional nature of our relationships.
All three of these components inform the extent to which we feel high or low levels of social connection and creating more meaningful connection requires we address all three elements.
To give an application of this at the workplace, we may be surrounded by a lot of people in our immediate environment (structural support) but may not perceive that our co-workers care about our struggles, successes, or aspirations outside of our work responsibilities (functional support). If the first two elements are present, but co-workers perceive our interactions to be largely negative (quality support), this can diminish one’s overall sense of connection at work.
In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown says authenticity is “the collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”
7 Ways to Foster Meaningful Connection at Work and in Life
Creating more meaningful connections starts with an individual, group, or organization identifying the kinds of relational interactions and behaviors that foster connection and belonging. Here are a few ways you can foster connection for yourself and how you can make your co-workers feel more connected:
- Identify and reinforce the values that foster social connection and belonging, for example, authenticity, respect, compassion, and empathy.
- Engage in more informal and casual conversations that go deeper than surface-level concerns.
- Create digital connection opportunities that emphasize peer-led, informal, personal conversations that are not task- or work-related.
- Incorporate small-group interactions into larger gatherings.
- Seek out training for yourself and others to promote skill-building in the areas of psychological safety, authentic relating, forgiveness, and appreciative inquiry.
- Add times for personal sharing into regular meetings or gatherings.
- Incorporate relationship-building skills into personal growth and professional development plans, including active listening, compassion, and emotional intelligence skills.
At the individual level, more meaningful levels of social connection help us feel more excited about our everyday work and also decreases the likelihood of experiencing burnout. By being intentional about building skills that help us get to know one another at a less superficial level and ensure the people in our lives feel seen, valued, and heard, we are also supporting the well-being of those that matter most to us.