Lonely? Cultures of working too hard

How busy are you? How supported do you feel? How much time can you make to have conversations that matter – with friends, family, co-workers? Honestly, how lonely do you feel?

It’s a pattern in modern economies. Life can be demanding, at work and at home. The pace is high. Everyone and everything seems real-time available via screens; loads of information, tasks, emails, contacts and opportunities compete for your attention. But our time and energy aren’t limitless. I see it around me – people are tired, stressed, irritated. I see it inside me – I’ve been on a rollercoaster of projects myself. I loved the adrenaline and the action. But I didn’t have time left for reflection and deep conversations.

Working too hard

I notice this in client organizations as well. One client knew that they had to do something about the culture as their metrics showed too many sick days, employee turnover, and attrition. I worked with several groups of managers to look at their culture and what they could improve.

These guys worked so hard; they could hardly slow down. It had become normal to give it your all – and then some more. People were working overtime by default, and it was never enough. High targets were like holy cows, and they started to lose their “spark”: the motivation, the purpose, the joy of getting things done together. There wasn’t time to connect with co-workers, to tap each other’s brains, to support one another. They were addicted to action while reflecting and connecting might have offered them ways to work smarter instead of harder.

Though these managers liked to work hard and get results, they agreed this results orientation had gone overboard. The positive vibe of their organization had always been in the teams: the people orientation. Knowing and trusting your co-workers, lending a hand, taking the time to solve issues for the long term, making jokes, spending relaxed breaks together – instead of complaining about the company, the bosses, or the targets in the hallways and rushing on.

When the company hit a rough patch some years ago, the excel spreadsheets with numbers started to dominate. They forgot about the strength of people in teams, the speed of trust, the support that gives meaning to your workdays, the feeling of belonging, the need to be seen and heard, and respected.

It was every man for himself. If Diana could escape working overtime, then Daniel had to step in. If Daniel found a valid excuse for why he didn’t make the target, then Dimitry had to calm the clients and offer them extras. The pressure stimulated individualism instead of team cohesion.

The managers decided they wanted to go back to serving, coaching, and leading their people. They planned tiny things they could change overnight – like starting their days with the blue-collar workers on the floor, instead of digging into emails every morning. Like rewarding team efforts instead of individual performance: Diana, Daniel, and Dimitry earn their bonus collaborating). Like doing town halls every Friday, where they share updates, and people can ask any question. Like doing more one-on-ones again, helping people improve and develop.
Tiny steps can create vast differences. It doesn’t take a ton of time and energy. These managers re-discovered the power of human attention – something they forgot while running around and hitting targets.

Working smart

Working (too) hard is a short-term tactic. Social connection is a basic human need and associated with health benefits. Feeling lonely is not just unpleasant, it damages the cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune systems’ performance. It also affects cognitive functions, may cause depressive symptoms and substance abuse while one of the best ways to cope with stress is to increase positive social connections.

The deficiency of connection today is detrimental not just to individuals but to organizations.
Researchers (Hakan Ozcelik and Sigal G. Barsade) found greater employee loneliness leads to poorer task, team role, and relational performance.

And it’s not much better for executives. Research reported in Harvard Business Review found that half of CEOs report feeling lonely, and 61% of those CEOs believed it hindered their performance. That aligns with my client experiences: it’s lonely at the top. Top executives often feel alone, without honest feedback and true support, weighed down by their responsibilities. Top teams are often no teams either. In the worst case, they are groups of competing, high-performing individuals with an extreme results orientation (to the detriment of people-orientation).

Working smart is rooted in connection and collaboration, tapping the collective intelligence and resilience of multiple brains, drawing support from others. It is what gives meaning to life and work. UCLA neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman describes social connection as a “superpower” that makes individuals and teams smarter, happier, and more productive.

Connection and collaboration are one necessary ingredient of a positive, productive culture. It is also what attracts millennials and keeps organizations vibrant in the long run. If you’re looking at recruitment and employee turnover: is it any wonder that new hires quit when it’s all work-work-work without any support from leaders or co-workers? The boomers might have been used to working hard without complaining, but today’s professionals long for purpose, meaning, and connection. That is what smart organizations offer! By developing a positive culture, you attract and retain the energized and smart co-workers that you need.

  • Do you have time for anything more than superficial relationships?
  • Are you too busy to reflect?
  • Think again. Please make time this week for one conversation that matters, with yourself, a co-worker, or a friend. Thank you! We will all benefit if you do.

Thanks for your post that resonated with me, Michael Lee Stallard.

© Marcella Bremer, 2020. All rights reserved.

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  1. Pam de Sterke

    Thanks for sharing all these insights. I know all this instinctively and act on it as much as possible. This can help convince colleagues to do the same 🙂