Combatting Loneliness in a Virtual World | AIIR Consulting

Editor's Note: This article was originally published Sept. 30, 2019, and has been updated to provide useful information and advice related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

5 Neuroscience Tips to Reduce Loneliness and Increase Personal and Team Performance During the COVID-19 Pandemic

As the world continues to contend with the spread of novel coronavirus COVID-19, the uncertainty that overwhelmed so many of us in recent weeks has been supplanted by a sense of isolation.

In the U.S., 41 states have issued stay-at-home orders as of April 6th, and four billion people around the globe are on lockdown. President Trump recently extended social distancing guidelines at least through the end of April. 

But even before these measures were in place, the world had been experiencing a rise in loneliness that affected our health, our happiness, and our work. 

As we face an isolated and uncertain future, we must find ways to connect to others and alleviate the effects of loneliness. Fortunately, neuroscience says it may be simpler than we think.

Look at All the Lonely People

Loneliness in the U.S. has doubled over the past 50 years. A survey from health services company Cigna showed that 46% of U.S. adults sometimes or always feel socially isolated, and 54% said they feel that no one knows them well. Separate studies show feelings of loneliness increasing around the world.

“Human beings are fundamentally social – more than any other animal species on the planet, our own destinies are linked to each other.” said Michael Platt, Ph.D., a renowned neuroscientist and co-founder of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative.

Loneliness has been shown to increase the likelihood of depression and other mental illnesses. Recently, researchers observed that the immune systems of lonely people display fewer antiviral compounds and more inflammation, a condition linked to a myriad of negative health outcomes, from cancer and heart disease to dementia. A meta-analysis by researchers at Brigham Young University showed that social isolation resulted in a 50% increase in premature death.

Loneliness Has Serious Effects on Performance

It turns out social isolation is bad for the bottom line, too. Loneliness reduces our ability to perform tasks, limits creativity, and reduces reasoning and decision making. 

Socially isolated team members are less likely to collaborate with others and could even hinder team cohesion. If these employees seek to work with others, research shows that their colleagues are likely to perceive them as unapproachable and uncommitted to the organization.

Teamwork is essential to success. If team members interact with each other in a positive way and are able to relate to one another, then they often perform much better than teams that don’t. But loneliness is a major barrier to building high-performing teams. With 88% of organizations encouraging or requiring their employees to work from home, that’s a major problem.

This is your brain. This is your brain when you're lonely.

The social brain network is a complex system that governs our social interactions. Neuroscience research has shown that the size and integrity of various components of the social brain network determine our ability to form and maintain connections with others.

The social brain network is weakened by isolation. Laboratory mice that were raised in an enriched environment and subsequently isolated for 30 days displayed nerve damage in parts of their brain. Other animal studies have shown isolation increases aggressiveness towards others, and creates persistent fear and hypersensitivity to threats. Social isolation reduces empathy, compassion, and perspective-taking, creating obvious obstacles to building the psychological safety essential to effective teams.

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Technology Isn't Necessarily the Cure

What is to blame for all these lonely people? Although there are many factors to consider, technology is one of the main drivers of isolation at work.

Technology has completely changed how we work. “Work” once simply meant time spent in the office. But even before the coronavirus outbreak, an international study revealed that 70% of employees work remotely at least once a week, and 53% work remotely for more than half of the week. The biggest challenge for those remote workers? Loneliness.

How can you stop loneliness from impacting team performance?

Fortunately, turning social isolation into an atmosphere of trust and safety may be easier than you think. Studies show that the social brain network is plastic – that it can be developed, and can actually increase in size, with practice.

What does that look like in the age of social distancing? 

5 Neuroscience Tips to Combat Loneliness


1. Connect With People When You Can

When you close your laptop at the end of the workday, take the time to connect with the people you live with. As advanced as our technology has become, science has shown that there is no substitution for in-person interaction. 

“Connecting with others, particularly through eye contact, causes the release of beneficial hormones throughout the brain that promote stress reduction and good health,” said Dr. Platt.

Take some time to connect with your children, eat dinner facing your roommates, or spend an intimate moment making eye contact with your spouse or your significant other. Live alone? Studies indicate that making eye contact with your dog is nearly as effective at triggering the release of the powerful neuropeptide oxytocin.

2. Make Time for Gossip

Saw a funny social media video this morning? Excited that a co-worker's baby is due soon? Don't be afraid to bring it up. One of the dangers remote work poses to teams is that in a virtual environment, our interactions tend to be all business. While it may be efficient, it can also be terribly lonely. Encourage small interactions at the beginning of phone calls and videoconferences to check in with coworkers. Studies show that these interactions trigger the release of oxytocin, key to social attachment and building trust between individuals

3. Invest in Video

While Slack messages and emails are quick and easy, they are also extremely impersonal. While it may seem that everyone is hopping on Zoom or Google Hangouts, recent data show that only about 45% of meetings include video. While not perfect, video conferencing allows some eye contact, which promotes the flow of oxytocin. It also allows your team to observe nonverbal signals, account for about 55% of communication. Ensure that your team has access to videoconferencing for all meetings, which has been shown to increase social bonding over audio- or text-only communication.

4. Focus

Working from home can be incredibly distracting. As a species, our attention span was steadily waning even before we had our televisions on in the background, our dogs and cats begging to be fed and our kids competing for our attention.

One of the best steps you can take to increase connection with your team is to eliminate as many distractions as possible while you’re on a call. 

The social brain network evolved to use those essential nonverbal cues to make critical decisions about the people around us. “If you have your phone out under the table, you are depriving your social brain of the information it needs to get along with others,” said Dr. Platt.

Close your email, disable push notifications, and, if you can, shut your door for a few minutes while you take your calls.

5. Eat a Balanced Breakfast

Here is some bad news for those of us who are stress-eating our way through isolation: the chemicals that regulate the social brain network are made from amino acids obtained through our diet. Researchers have shown that a breakfast high in processed carbohydrates reduces the production of dopamine in the brain, making individuals in the study more aggressive, more likely to reject fair offers during negotiation, and less able to empathize with others. 

Likewise, numerous studies have shown that taking moments within each day to meditate, take a nap, take a walk, or simply do nothing can actually help increase productivity, replenish attention span, bolster memory recall, and foster creativity.

Looking for More Ways to Boost Your Brain During This Crisis?

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