Making connections: Small steps led to big changes

Rebecca Weitzel

What if you had to take a pop quiz that included this question: What is the No. 1 public health crisis we face today? Which answer would you choose? A. poor nutrition. B. lack of exercise. C. loneliness.

Most people would likely pick A or B — and for good reasons. Poor nutrition and lack of physical exercise contribute to a broad range of health complications, including obesity, illness and premature death. But if you chose C, you’d also be correct. In fact, a mounting body of evidence suggests loneliness and isolation increase the risk of an early death by an average of 30 percent — the same proportion of risk associated with obesity. Its clear loneliness constitutes a real medical crisis that warrants our attention as a community and as employers who rely on thriving people to ensure the success of our businesses.

But how do we address loneliness when, in many of our organizations, self-reliance and independence reign supreme as the attributes people believe they should strive for and asking for help or acknowledging the need for others bear significant stigma? The key is to start with small practices that lead to big changes.

In the workplace, we have the opportunity to apply this concept to loneliness by providing simple ways for employees to connect to each other in meaningful ways. An easy place to start is to encourage daily practices of kindness and gratitude. Research shows increased kindness and gratitude lead to significant mindset changes that can reward us with better relationships, increased compassion and improved self-worth and resilience. These changes also reduce anxiety, depression and stress — all elements for creating space for more meaningful connections with others.

Introducing practices of kindness and gratitude doesn’t have to require sweeping policy changes or touchy-feely retreats. As part of overall employee well-being efforts, consider instead challenging employees to implement one of the science-backed practices below and look for ways to incorporate these simple daily habits into company culture:

Pay one sincere compliment each day. Offering sincere compliments can build trust, take the focus off ourselves and our problems and spark joy in someone else’s life.

Express appreciation regularly in person or with a hand-written card or e-mail. Regularly expressing appreciation can help us build relationships, enhance our empathy for others and reduce such negative feelings between people as jealousy and frustration. Aim to articulate specific things you appreciate about the other person rather than vague, catch-all phrases. Specifics are more meaningful and feel more sincere.

Perform random acts of kindness. When we serve others, even in small ways, such chemicals as oxytocin are released in our brains that cause us to naturally care more for them. Serving others also helps us feel more connected, even to those we don’t know very well. Random acts of kindness can be big or small, from delivering a meal to an ill co-worker or donating blood to helping someone unload a car or clean up after a lunch meeting.

Record three things you’re grateful for each day. Focusing on what you’re grateful for — even such seemingly mundane things as fresh water, clean clothes and paved roads — improves our resilience, sleep, mood and even our physical health. Eventually, we can rewire our brains to notice the good things in life, including things about the people with which we associate.

Write down your positive experiences. Recording details about one positive experience each day creates a shift in mindset and a log of happy memories we can refer back to when we’re feeling sad or lonely. It also motivates us to seek out more positive experiences with others, improving our relationships.

Addressing loneliness in the workplace can be a win-win for employees and employers. The effects of fostering a kinder, more grateful, more connected work force has the power to improve individual well-being and corporate culture. What’s more, employers are likely to see increases in productivity and decreases in absenteeism and turnover. By some estimates, such well-being interventions can result in a $1.40 to $4.70 return for every $1 spent over a three-year period

That’s a pretty great outcome for simply encouraging people to be a little nicer and recognize the positive things in their lives.