In December 2017, the Jo Cox Commission released a report calling for the appointment of a minister to combat social isolation and loneliness in the United Kingdom. Loneliness, the report declared, is harmful to human health, particularly among the country’s nine million elderly who say that they are “often or always lonely.”
Over the last few years, the Commission has invested in a national strategy to address what they see as an epidemic – and thus Homeshare UK was born, an organization that pairs an isolated elderly person looking for companionship with a younger person in need of low-cost housing. 95-year-old Florence and her 27-year-old student housemate Alexandra share their story:
With Homeshare, a mutually beneficial living situation turned into an authentic and unlikely friendship. “I would just call you a friend if anyone asked me,” says Alexandra.
“You cannot believe the difference that it makes just hearing someone in the house,” Florence adds. “We get on like a house on fire.”
Recently, researchers around the globe have been focusing on the link between social isolation and physical health. At the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, a team observing fruit flies found that socially isolating the insects lead to sleep loss, cellular stress and the activation of a defense mechanism shared by humans called the “unfolded protein response,” which can contribute to the aging process and age-related diseases.
And social isolation pervades the workplace too. A recent Harvard Business Review series explored how inadequate or nonexistent social connections at work are taking a toll on employee well-being: Loneliness, the series reports, is associated with “a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.”’
While smoking cessation is a key element of many corporate wellness programs, initiatives that ignite connection and contribute to a sense of belonging are harder to come by. But organizations like Homeshare are implementing a vision where inclusion and wellness go hand-in-hand – and it’s time for companies to take note.
Earning your colleagues’ trust and respect is tough to do at a monthly happy hour. Conversations at an office party rarely grow beyond small talk into something deeper. And while we may gravitate toward our usual work acquaintances day-to-day, don’t we write off colleagues who seem too different or alien to be a potential friend? How are we supposed to shed our sense of isolation at work if we never have the opportunity to find commonality?
Recently, we completed a fifth Books@Work program as a part of an initiative to foster a better sense of community among employees at a large research university. And in a brilliant marriage of inclusion and well-being, the university offers Books@Work not as a diversity & inclusion initiative, but as part of the employee wellness program. One participant shared her experience:
“To me, [our university] is like a lot of fragmented places. There’s the law school, the school of nursing, the business school. I think people are needing that community-building more and more, [and Books@Work] is a vehicle to make that happen. . . There’s value in everybody you meet. You’ve just got to slow down enough to grab it.”
Think of Florence and Alexandra: Two people nearly 70 years apart in age built a friendship merely because circumstances gave them the space and time to develop it.
Human beings crave connection, and diverse organizations are more productive. It’s possible to combat social isolation in the workplace and unleash the power of diversity if we just give colleagues the chance to do so. Isn’t it time we put Florence and Alexandra’s lesson to work?
Image: Maria Primachenko, Crane Makes Friends With a Fox, 1979, [Fair Use] via WikiArt.org