Covid-19 is wreaking havoc among us, not because it’s causing global physical and economic meltdown, but for exacerbating another pandemic we’ve been dealing with for decades: loneliness.
Science has long recognised that loneliness is emotionally painful and can lead to a host of side effects including heart disease, stroke, cancer and Alzheimer’s. Physical and emotional health and wellbeing are dependent on loving and meaningful relationships which include physical touch.
Human beings are social beings and in this Covid-19 crisis we need each other more than ever. How unfortunate, then, that the battle cry of this pandemic is social distancing. While physical separation is clearly essential to flatten the curve, what we need right now is to be supported by a very large dose of meaningful social connection.
Yet even before the pandemic, we humans battled to make meaningful connections. With communication at its most advanced and accessible, with friends a mere text away, with families able to connect with a simple Siri command, we had already become lonelier than we’d ever been. Now more than ever we need social connectivity. And because we have to forsake physical connection for the time being, it is vital that we reach out with the tools we have and ensure that our connections are meaningful and emotionally rich.
Technology and connectivity on their own cannot do that. It’s not enough to just connect. You have to do it with purpose and intent. Research backs up the fact that overreliance on technology creates the opposite outcome because quantity does not equal quality. In a survey exploring the social media patterns of 1 781 young adults, those who logged on for a half hour per day felt less lonely than to those who were socially active online for more than two hours daily. Participants who logged on nine times weekly felt less isolated compared to those who checked in over 50 times a week.
Social media as a social tool is less about how often it is used and more about how it is used. Significantly, a survey of 20 000 Americans found that young adults between 18 and 22 are the loneliest generation of all. And we thought they were the most connected with thousands of friends and followers across a multitude of platforms. Business leaders should take note that the inability to connect in the workplace can also cause loneliness and negative work outcomes. According to a recent study published in the Harvard Business Review, workers who experienced higher levels of loneliness also reported fewer promotions and less job satisfaction, and were more likely to change jobs frequently.
Looked at from the business perspective, what the manager sees is low productivity, less integration, and less teamwork – in short, more cost for less outcome. Working from home as we have been doing offers many benefits. Unfortunately, it also exacerbates the physical and social isolation that is cushioned by busy office spaces. And let’s face it, however much you like your colleagues, it’s not always desirable or appropriate to share your Facebook timeline with all of them.
So what’s the answer? There’s a lot to be said for choosing fewer platforms on which to engage, particularly those that offer and promote better opportunities to connect meaningfully. Instead of focusing on the collection of likes, we should purse meaningful discourse with intent. Meaningful social connection is what we need. Out with social distancing, in with social connection.
By Stefano Migliore, Executive Director SiSebenza.