A World on Hold: How (Together) We Can Stop a Social Recession

Christina Zurek
Christina Zurek

With more than a third of the world’s population—approximately 3 billion people—under some form of social restriction, there is nothing “normal” about life right now.

In a strangely comforting way, though, I feel a stronger sense of shared purpose in the world right now.

Science, and the collective efforts of so many, have made it clear that reducing physical contact will reduce the COVID-19 infection rate and, hopefully, lead to faster recovery. And while isolating ourselves from others is its own challenge, understanding why we’re doing it and how it will help can make the decision to continue a little easier to manage.

But those decisions come at a different cost. A few of years ago, former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy spoke out on what he coined the Loneliness Epidemic. Highlighting examples like the increased incidence of self-reported loneliness, decreased average number of confidantes and increased burnout rates, he made a compelling case for why we should be concerned about increasingly lacking social connection in our world.

Related: What can companies like yours do to combat workplace loneliness and successfully foster meaningful human connections? Find out in our on-demand webinar.

Like most today, he’s trying to better understand the potential emotional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Teaming up with Alice T. Chen, an internal-medicine physician who served as executive director and a founding board member of Doctors for America, they caution that we may be on the brink of a Social Recession—a further fraying of already vulnerable social bonds that affect people’s moods, health, ability to work and learn, and sense of community.

But there’s hope in their message, too. In fact, they urge that not only can people maintain social connection during this time, they can actually improve upon it by putting extra effort in to outreach efforts, finding small, distraction-free moments to focus on connection as well as even embracing solitude, which, unlike isolation or loneliness, is a feeling of being comfortable in your own company.

“Language created ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone and ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.”
—Paul Tillich

While we’re unsure how long this period of social restriction will last, we can generally all agree that as the world stabilizes, restrictions will decrease and people will interact in ways that feel more familiar. But what can we do now—and in the future—to ensure we fend off the potential social recession?

Here are some ideas:

woman participating in virtual dinner party

1. Take care of yourself and your existing social circle.

While self-care might look different depending on each of our situations, try to find ways to manage stress, anxiety, grief and other emotions that arise during a disruption of this magnitude. Technology is proving to be an extraordinary resource, from simple measures like daily virtual check-ins to more creative applications like video-conferencing dinner parties. While it might feel a little awkward or unnatural at first, give yourself permission to acknowledge whatever complex emotions you’re feeling. Taking time to ensure your personal wellbeing should take precedence.

woman collaborating virtually with coworkers

2. Find ways to collaborate—whether you’re working in a co-located space, from your home or otherwise.

Depending on your role in an organization, you may or may not have typically had much contact with others. If collaboration is the norm, use the technology available to help facilitate those interactions you’d normally have in person while you might still be based elsewhere. If not, use this time as a way to connect with people you might not have tried to in the past. Inviting a peer to have a socially-distanced cup of coffee or virtual lunch could be a great way to open up workplace friendships. If your organization has clubs or committees, consider signing up—this can quickly connect you with a lot of like-minded people.

gratitude journal

3. Appreciate the people you have in your life.

If there is one thing this pandemic has taught many of us, it’s the value of others. Whether that’s personally or professionally, gratitude is a critical component of our recovery from this crisis. In fact, routinely recognizing the impact of others and expressing gratitude has been found to improve your immune system, lower risk of mental health issues, help you process stress and actually set you up for success. One idea I’m going to try is taking photos of the things I’m grateful for. (TEDTalks offers four other exercises, which can help you add more thanks to your life.)  

father and daughter spending time together

4. Give the people in your life your full attention.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably been racking your mind with how you can help during this time. Sewing cloth masks. Running errands for at-risk friends and neighbors. Fostering a pet. Little or big, everything helps. But we often forget that simply showing up and listening can be an extraordinarily powerful experience. If you've ever felt deeply heard by somebody else, you know that experience helps you feel seen, appreciated and understood. And that is a very, very powerful antidote to loneliness and to disconnection. Recognize that all we need to do is have an open mind, a full heart and a desire to truly honestly and openly connect with another human being.

At the end of the day, it’s our friends and colleagues who aid in the fight against workplace loneliness and the benefits of doing so are thoroughly documented. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has touched everybody and will be a lasting reminder for years to come of the importance of social connection, even if that world might look and feel differently than we’ve experienced before.  

For more ideas on how to create meaningful connection in the workplace, check out ITA Group’s Fostering Human Connections in the Workplace ebook, and discover how we implemented our own connection strategy with the goal of giving employees more meaningful ways to interact and how we can do the same for you.

Fostering Human Connections in the Workplace

Christina Zurek

Christina Zurek

Christina is an experienced leader with a passion for improving the employee experience, employee engagement and workplace culture. Few things excite her as much as an opportunity to try something unfamiliar (be that a project, development opportunity, travel destination, food, drink or otherwise), though digging in to a research project is a close second.