Loneliness is a companion that many of us have become all too familiar with over the past couple of years.
Last year, a quarter of Americans reported feeling loneliness for much of their day. And now, while many offices have reopened in the wake of the pandemic, working from home is still the norm for most of us who are able to work remotely. This means we're missing out on valuable watercooler chats in the office, carpooling with old friends, and meeting new co-workers in person. Working from home certainly has its perks, but it sure can be lonely.
It's no surprise, then, that the theme for this year's Mental Health Awareness Week in the U.K. (coinciding with Mental Health Awareness Month in the U.S.) is loneliness.
Loneliness can have a hugely negative impact on our lives, at home and at work. It's one of the HALT Risk States, meaning it can undermine your performance and trigger self-sabotage.
Prolonged loneliness will take its toll on your mental health and can lead to depression, anxiety and increased stress. It can even harm your physical health, too. And it's a vicious cycle – feeling lonely can further isolate someone because of the stigma attached to it.
But one country that seems to have banished workplace loneliness is Sweden. How? With a tasty tradition called fika.
You've probably heard of "fika" before, as multiple café chains use it in their names.
Fika is defined as "a break from activity during which people drink coffee, eat cakes or other light snacks, and relax with others." (Oxford English Dictionary)
Introduced in the 1900s, fika is a deeply rooted tradition in Sweden. So much so that many Swedish firms now have mandatory fika breaks. It allows workers to slow down and socialize. Fika breaks usually take place at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. in the workplace, but Swedes also take them out of office hours. They consider it an important and beneficial part of their daily lives.
And the proof is in the pudding! Swedish workers are some of the least stressed and most productive in the world. Many believe that this is thanks to the country's fika tradition.
So how can we take inspiration from Sweden?
Here are some ways that fika can inspire us to combat loneliness, whether working remotely or in the office.
When lockdown forced us to close the office and start working from home, I was anxious about the change. I'm a creature of habit and had grown fond of the office and, even more so, the office dogs. A few weeks will be fine, I thought. But once it became clear that the Coronavirus wasn't going to "blow over in a couple weeks," and that working from home would be the new normal, I worried for my working relationships and feared missing out on news from other teams. Like everyone else, I soon started to miss my friends and co-workers (and the office dogs, of course!) and loneliness became my housemate.
My employer responded well to the pandemic, and set up a "coffee buddies" program. Each fortnight, I would be paired with someone else from the company and we would be prompted to set up a virtual meeting to have a chat and get to know one another. There was no time limit, so we could go at our own pace and enjoy the virtual company. I loved meeting colleagues new and old, and it certainly made me feel less lonely in lockdown.
There are lots of other initiatives that workplaces can instill to build a connected company culture and keep employee loneliness at bay. For example, why not start a chess tournament or book club?
These can easily be set up online or in the office, and allow you and your co-workers to learn a new skill, or spend time doing what you love. And it helps the business – employees who play hard, work hard.
It has been found time and time again that being kind makes us happier.
So, if you suspect someone might be suffering from loneliness, invite them to a fika break! A quick check-in that they're OK will defend you from loneliness, too. Or, could you try volunteering in your local community? This gives you the chance to meet new people, and boost your self-esteem.
A little kindness goes a long way – for everyone.
In Sweden, it would be frowned upon to decline a fika invitation without a good reason. But socializing should be done on your own terms. A coffee break with a colleague isn't the perfect solution to everyone's loneliness, after all. However, fika is as much about taking the time to slow down as it is about socializing.
It may sound counterintuitive to embrace being alone when you experience loneliness, but it can be empowering. I've enjoyed trips to the cinema, dinners out, and even holidays alone before. And I think they made me more resilient to lockdown loneliness.
By choosing to spend some time alone, you protect yourself from burnout and hurry sickness. It allows time for reflection and rest. I think often we're afraid of solitude, but it can be nice in small doses.
It's important that employees feel able to take the time out of their working day to build connections. Building relationships with co-workers will not only improve employee well-being, but it will also help to break down silos and enhance collaboration.
I hope other workplaces can take inspiration from Sweden and encourage their teams to slow down and connect with one another this Mental Health Awareness Week.
So what are you waiting for? Grab a coffee, a cake and a willing colleague!
The often griped-about "winter blues" may not sound like something to worry about, but as the days get colder and shorter, Seasonal Affective Disorder could be infiltrating your workplace without you knowing!
"Mental health issues are often based on the tension between what one has achieved and what one has the potential to become." - Clive Lewis
"Running into that thing makes our anxiety spike – and we start telling stories in our head about what an inadequate person we are."