Professional loneliness is not just an issue for entrepreneurs, small business owners or freelancers. I am sure some people reading this who work at head office, at times feel professionally lonely. Perhaps they struggle to find friends at work.
Still, we do not know enough about loneliness in the gig economy. Warnings about project-based employment usually focus on lack of job security or workplace conditions. Seldom do we read of the effect of loneliness on worker wellbeing in the gig economy.
We know loneliness is costly. The Cigna 2020 Loneliness Index, released in late January, found almost three in five American adults feel lonely – technology, telecommunicating and an always-on work culture was fuelling an “epidemic” of loneliness.
Lonely workers said they were less engaged and productive, twice as likely to take a sick day and five times more likely to miss work because of stress, the survey of 10,400 respondents revealed. Lonely workers thought about quitting their job twice as often as non-lonely workers.
Care is needed extrapolating survey results to the general population. However, numerous academic and industry studies have identified growing loneliness in the workplace and its negative effect on employee health, productivity and talent retention.
Having enough meaningful work each day, a reasonable work/life balance, colleagues to lunch with occasionally and even a “best friend” at work can reduce professional loneliness. But technology is making work more isolated and less social for many workers.
Also, it is not just front-line workers or managers who feel lonely. Many CEOs are plagued by feelings of isolation and loneliness, Harvard Business Review has reported. And loneliness is regarded as a key challenge facing entrepreneurs.
If the future involves more than a million Australians working in the gig economy, we must understand the potential toll that this form of employment has on people – and communities – over long periods.
We need to know if people who work on their own each day and communicate mostly by email, experience loneliness – and how that affects their mental and physical health, relationships, career development, business and the broader community.
I am fortunate that my work is busy, has never-ending deadlines and that journalism, by its nature, is reasonably social. Being surrounded by family – and making an effect to get out the house to exercise or meet others each day – adds to the interaction.
But what of gig economy workers who are single or on their own all day as their life partner works in town? Or others who have downtime between projects (research shows this can contribute to loneliness) or work that has longer lead times and is solitary in nature?
What happens when more people work from home each day, the gig economy expands and there is a rise in people who live and work on their own? Or when work is increasingly done through digital teams, further reducing social interaction and adding to loneliness?
The good news is that many gig economy workers understand the importance of professional interaction. Some home-based workers would prefer to rent a desk in a co-working site and be surrounded by strangers rather than sit at home all day on their own.
I alternate home-based work with occasional visits to a nearby co-working site. But in my experience co-working communities do not provide the same social interaction and support that comes from working with colleagues each day.
We need to raise more awareness of loneliness in the gig economy and debate the issue, to inform policymakers and service providers. Also overdue is research and action on loneliness in the community generally, amid an ageing population.
Britain appointed its first Minister for Loneliness in 2018 and later that year released its first loneliness strategy. Former British prime minister Theresa May said loneliness was among the country’s greatest public health challenges.
A statement accompanying the strategy report noted three-quarter of Britain’s GPs said they saw one to five people a day suffering from loneliness, and about 200,000 older people had not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.
Australia could learn from Britain’s approach and take it further by understanding loneliness in the gig economy and implementing policy to address it.
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Tony Featherstone writes on Personal Finance specialising in Superannuation & SMSFs, Specialist Investments.