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Lisa Stewart-Brown

Program Manager, Mental Health and Wellbeing, Banfield Pet Hospital

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Mental Fitness: How to Fight Isolation Now That So Many are Working From Home

05/19/2020 06:00AM | 3609 views

This is Part 1 of 2 articles covering a key skill we need to help younger generations develop: how to self-regulate. Part 2 is here.

Younger workers were already feeling lonely and isolated at work, and now many are suddenly working remotely.

You might be a leader of associates now working from home. You might be a parent with kids now suddenly invading your space all day, every day. You might be raising the next-generation workforce. Or you might be a combination of all three. 

In any case, there’s something we can learn from Gen Z’s workplace loneliness epidemic. In this two-part series, I’ll cover two aspects of self-regulation – managing stress and withstanding feedback – both of which help us develop resilience.  

Loneliness Takes a Toll

First, here’s why this matters to us as associates, as parents and as leaders. 

According to a Cigna survey of 10,000 American adults: lonely workers say they are less engaged and less productive than non-lonely workers. They are twice as likely to miss a day of work due to illness, five times more likely to miss work due to stress, and they think about quitting their job more than twice as often as non-lonely workers. Twelve percent of lonely workers say they believe their work is lower quality than it should be. 

Remote workers are more likely than non-remote workers to always or sometimes feel alone.

And suddenly we have many more remote workers than ever before.  

This feeling of isolation affects Gen Z the most. From Cigna’s Loneliness and the Workplace: 2020 U.S. Report:

  • 73% of Gen Z respondents sometimes or always feel alone.
  • 54% of Gen Zers in the workplace often feel emotionally distant from the people they work with, compared to 28% of Baby Boomers. 
  • 55% of Gen Z report feeling disconnected from others at work, while just 27% of Baby Boomers agree.

If you have Gen Z workers who already feel emotionally isolated and suddenly find themselves also physically isolated, you should think about proactively helping people cope.

A Necessary Skill: Self-Regulation

Loneliness is complex. But as alicensed clinical social workerand throughout a decade of bringing mental health into the workplace, I’ve noticed relevant differences between the generations that grew up monitoring their own social interactions on the playground and the generations that grew up with their social interactions monitored by adults. 

The world has changed, and parenting styles have shifted over the past decades. While previous generations might have had more freedom to play outside without adult supervision, people have become more cautious out of valid and real safety concerns. 

This isn’t to say either style of parenting is the “right” way, but the “playground kids” might have acquired some developmental benefits that “adult-arranged playdate kids” might have missed out on, or received in different ways. 

Playground kids probably had to figure out how to get along with kids who were older, younger, pleasant, not-so-pleasant – simply because they all lived nearby. They had to navigate those peer groups through trial and error. Those errors likely helped them learn self-regulation.  

When I was a kid, a neighborhood boy threw worms at me and one landed in my mouth, so my sister confronted him (a clear message to not mess with me). The playground exposed us to a range of normal adversities that helped us build skills for regulating our behavior. 

The playground gave us exposure to stress – “Here comes the boy who throws worms!” … “Here comes the girl who confronts you if she doesn’t like what you do!” That stress helped us build resiliency. Risk and adversity can help strengthen our character and our ability to withstand stress and even grow from it.

What does this have to do with loneliness? Through no fault of their own, members of Gen Z grew up in a very different world where they might not have had as many opportunities to practice dealing with stress on their own. 

Kids who grow up with parent-monitored playdates might not have as many opportunities to learn how to initiate or navigate social situations for themselves. As the playdate generation moves into the workplace, they can lack some of those coping skills.   

Here are some critical skills that can help manage stress in the workplace: 

  • Stress management – recognizing the difference between normal stress and unhealthy stress, and what to do about it. Healthy stress motivates us into action and helps us do some of our best work. 
  • Problem-solving – seeing yourself as resourceful enough to find a solution and/or engage others to help find a solution. As a leader, resist the urge to jump in and solve problems. Rather, support them through encouragement, questions and giving permission to try and test.
  • Self-care – building internal resources and developing authentic self-care strategies is as important as physical fitness. Lead through example. When taking your paid time off (PTO), make it protected time off rather than pretend time off. Label the behavior as self-care: “I’m taking a walk now because I need a little self-care after that meeting. I need to refresh and renew.” 

We should encourage these skills if we want people to be their best. 

And, bonus tip: don’t throw worms, because people will avoid you! 

Lisa Stewart-Brown a Licensed Clinical Social Worker is the Program Manager for Mental Health and Wellbeing for Banfield Pet Hospital.

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