Americans Struggling with Stress and Loneliness

November 15, 2015
Mike Stallard

The media is abuzz about the declining life span of middle-aged, white adults in the U.S. from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis. I’m not surprised. One explanation is the rise in loneliness.

Stress is increasing today as the world economy becomes more competitive and the explosion of information overwhelms individuals. The effects are felt not just mentally, but throughout their nervous systems.

Human connection in the form of conversation and relational support provides psychological resources to cope with stress.  Unfortunately, people have fewer confidants today as single-person households in America are at an all-time high of 28 percent, families have spread out, workplaces are lonelier, and both work hours and commutes are longer. Add to that the allure of media and smartphones, and you have a recipe for less time spent in meaningful face-to-face conversation, a state that contributes to greater anxiety, depression and addiction.

Hardwired to Connect

We are hardwired to connect. When our lives crowd out time connecting with others, we dysfunction. As the neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman said in his TED Talk, connection is a superpower that makes people more productive, healthier and happier. To reverse these ominous trends we need to dial back our achieve-aholic tendencies to pursue wealth, power, and fame, and spend more time and energy connecting with others in supportive relationships.

Interestingly, Millennials are trying to do just that in response to seeing their Boomer parents’ struggles. When global marketing firm McCann Worldgroup surveyed 1,000 individuals in the U.S. between the ages of 16-30 years old in 2001, it found more than 90 percent of those surveyed rated “connection and community” as their greatest need. As the researchers put it, “to truly grasp the power of connection for this generation, we can look at how they wish to be remembered. It is not for their beauty, their power, or their influence, but simply for the quality of their human relationships and their ability to look after those around them.” Although Millennials long to connect, they are becoming increasingly frustrated in meeting that desire, in part because of addictions to smartphones and other media.

Connection in the Workplace

Employers can make a difference, too, by recognizing that people are coming to work with a connection deficit. Organizations that have relationally toxic or indifferent cultures exacerbate the situation. In many workplaces, anyone who takes lunch away from his desk is labeled as a slacker. Companies that are hell-bent on growth at any cost are harming their employees and their own organization’s performance.

Wise leaders not only value task excellence, they also value relationship excellence. Both are necessary for an organization to thrive. Employees who experience sufficient connection, 1) perform better cognitively and physically, 2) give greater discretionary effort, 3) are more aligned with organizational goals, 4) communicate more so that decision-makers have better information, which improves the quality of decision-making, and 5) engage in creative conversations that fuel innovation. These five benefits add up to a powerful competitive advantage that comes from workplace cultures of connection.

One recent leader who created a connection culture is Ed Catmull, CEO of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation Studios. Catmull cares for people and cares for results. He wants the people he is responsible for leading to thrive and, as a result,  has made culture his full-time job. He writes about this new focus in his recent book, Creativity, Inc.

How to Change Workplace Culture

Leaders can create cultures of connection by communicating an inspiring vision that unites, valuing people as human beings rather than means to an end, and giving people a voice in decisions that affect them. I recommend leaders focus on shaping the attitudes, uses of language, and behaviors of the people they are responsible for leading.

CNO Admiral Vern Clark, the former chief of the Navy did this.  When Admiral Clark became the Chief of Naval Operations in 2000, the Navy was not meeting its first term enlisted sailor reenlistment goal. Clark visited bases around the world, meeting with both the officer class and the master chiefs who lead the enlisted class of sailors. Clark told the master chiefs a story about a master chief who mentored him on his first ship and how it made him a better sailor and leader. He asked the master chiefs to mentor and coach the sailors under their command like the master chief who mentored him. Clark said if the master chiefs mentored their enlisted sailors, the Navy would have the sailors it needed.

The master chiefs weren’t used to meeting with the Chief of Naval Operations. They appreciated that Admiral Clark knew their leadership made a difference and they weren’t going to let him down. This and other actions initiated by Clark and his leaders (including the master chiefs) contributed to a rise in enlisted sailor first term reenlistment. Within 18 months of Admiral Clark’s becoming the chief, first term reenlistment soared from under 38 percent (the Navy’s goal) to near 57 percent.

Today, 70 percent of American employees report they do not feel connected at work. Changing workplace cultures in ways that boost connection will not only improve America’s productivity, it will also provide psychological resources to cope with the rising stress of modern life thereby improving the employee’s health and happiness.

More From Michael Lee Stallard

3 Insights About Stress Every Leader Should Know

How Connection Improves Our Health and Wellness

New Approach to Reduce Dysfunctional Behavior at Work

Michael Lee Stallard, president and cofounder of Connection Culture Group, speaks, teaches and consults on leadership, organizational culture and employee engagement. He is the author of Connection Culture and Fired Up or Burned Out. Follow him on his blogTwitterFacebookGoogle+ or LinkedIn.

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