The Coach: How To Burst The Isolation Bubble And Start Reconnecting
Illustration by Mr Thomas Pullin
Midas turned everything he touched into gold. Unfortunately, the poor king didn’t bother to think through the implications of this miraculous skill, realising too late that even his food would become precious metal the moment he got his hands on it. The moral of this story? Be careful what you wish for.
For so many of us, until about a couple of months ago that is, the prospect of staying at home under a lockdown would have felt, like Midas and his mountain of gold, a dream come true.
Get up when you want? Check. Lounge in your Derek Rose PJs all day? Check. Spending a Tuesday binge-watching Star Wars episodes one through nine while munching through an entire box of cereal? Check.
Yet now, months into lockdown, the novelty of our new situation has begun to wear off. Cut off from friends and family, running out of ideas for evening meals – not oven-baked chips again! – and all the while conscious of a potential threat to our own health and that of our loved ones buzzing away like white noise in the background, we find ourselves becoming listless, sluggish, and not least, bored.
For those of us who live alone, these difficulties are compounded by feelings of intense isolation. Loneliness is a particularly hard emotion for men to talk about, because it can sound like weakness or even something shameful. What, no friends? What’s wrong with you?
A study at the University of Waterloo revealed that men are no more likely to feel lonely than women, but they find it much harder to admit to because of its association with vulnerability, which is something that men have traditionally been encouraged to suppress.
My client, Zak, first started working from home six weeks ago. He immediately doubled his sessions with me to twice a week.
“It’s already making me feel lonely,” he said at the time, a feeling he was fortunately able to reveal to me after the trust between us built over two years of working together. “Yes, I’m still busy with work, but just seeing people on Zoom for meetings with no fun or banter is actually doing my head in.”
I was happy to help Zak, but an unexpected and welcome relief soon came along. Realising his apartment building was now filled with solitary people just like himself, my client started to feel less alone. During a weekly clap-for-the-NHS ritual, he called out from his balcony to his neighbours, emboldened by their shared isolation.
Skip forward two weeks, Zak now has weekly Zoom chats with three of his friendly neighbours and they’ve even started shopping for each other, too. My client has found himself a supportive community on his doorstep which is why he quickly returned to our regular once-a-week sessions.
“Feelings of isolation have been plaguing men since long before this pandemic turned our lives upside down. It’s an issue that’s especially acute in our professional lives”
“I used to feel lonely because I thought everyone was having a better time than me,” he said during a recent session. “It’s so much easier knowing everyone is in now the same boat and we can help each other, too.”
It feels strange to be writing this at a time when so many are seeing their lives impacted negatively, but I’ve never seen Zak happier since he found this neighbourhood community for himself, a group of friends I imagine he’ll still stay close to once the lockdown is lifted.
Feelings of isolation have been plaguing men since long before this pandemic turned our lives upside down. It’s an issue that’s especially acute in our professional lives. A news and media corporation where I run leadership training workshops was so concerned by this that its HR team asked me to develop a programme to help men “lean back in” and to become more connected with their coworkers. They were worried that the company’s male employees were retreating from social interactions, which was having a negative impact on morale and productivity.
Ironically, the isolation that Zak was feeling while working from home can easily occur in a regular open-plan office, too. It happens when we wear headphones at our desks, or when we have virtual meetings with a colleague who sits 10 seconds’ walk away. It happens when we choose to eat lunch alone at our desks while barely acknowledging the people around us. All of these things might seem like the easy option. But having meaningful connections with others lowers our stress levels, makes our problems seem smaller all while giving us a powerful sense of belonging, which can be beneficial not only for ourselves but also for our places of work and communities, too.
Without these meaningful connections, much like the gold-turning King Midas, we can quickly begin to feel starved. But as my client Zak’s story illustrates, even at a time like this the potential for human friendship is more abundant than gold – and a great deal more valuable, too.