Tackling the Loneliness Epidemic: Insights for Nonprofit Professionals on Enhancing Well-being

Published by on March 23, 2024

“If you don’t care about people’s quality of life, you don’t care about their quality of work.” I wish I could remember where I heard that, but when I did I was compelled to write it down. If you are a “Hiver” you know that we care about the people. We care about connections.

I especially liked Evan Wildsteins post about organizations adopting a position of a Chief Decent Human Behaviour (Canadian spelling. ☺) Officer, or CDHBO. The concept of someone whose job is to make sure that there is someone on staff taking care of the “in between spaces” or the people. As a recovering Charity Executive turned Executive Coach I love this. I love it because if organizations had a CDHBO maybe loneliness wouldn’t now be recognized by the World Health Organization as an epidemic!

The Loneliness Epidemic: A Global Health Crisis

Did you know that loneliness has a serious impact on your physical and mental health? Studies show that it has been linked to anxiety and depression and can increase risk of cardiovascular disease by 30%. Loneliness is more than a “mood.” The problem of loneliness has reached epidemic proportions and is a serious global health concern. In fact, The World Health Organization just launched a commission to tackle the global epidemic of loneliness head on.

“High rates of social isolation and loneliness around the world have serious consequences for health and well-being. People without enough strong social connections are at higher risk of stroke, anxiety, dementia, depression, suicide and more,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “This WHO Commission will help establish social connection as a global health priority and share the most promising interventions.”

Understanding the Impact of Loneliness on Nonprofit Leaders

Working in a non-profit can be very lonely, even in the best organizations. Your job is to lead your team, your board, your beneficiaries – well…everyone. You need to inspire, motivate, delegate, decide stuff and lift everyone around you. If you are a fundraiser, you are often caught in a vice-grip of pressure and literally NO ONE in your organization understands what it is you do. It is a tough gig—even in the best circumstances. It can get very lonely.

One day, when I was an Executive Director, I decided to take the salad I brought for lunch to the lunchroom instead of eating it at my desk. As I approached the lunchroom I heard giggling, banter, and animated conversations about something exciting. I was glad I made the time, and couldn’t wait to join in the fun. When I walked in the door the banter stopped. The energy shifted. It was subtle, and people were polite sure—but less joyous. I was the boss after all. It was a great team and I knew it wasn’t personal. It was just human nature to sit up straighter when your boss walks in the room. I started going for walks at lunch instead. I wanted the staff to relax.

The loneliness epidemic: Nearly 1 in 4 adults feel lonely, new survey finds

Who do you turn to when you need a lift? Whose got your back? It’s great to be able to talk to your spouse about your job or the worries that keep you up at night, but even they can’t truly understand the complexities of your work situation. There is often no one to talk to who really understands all you are coping with. By nature, being a charity executive is often solitary and can get lonely. Being aware of how lonely you are is essential for your own well-being.

So while we wait for the WHO Commission on Loneliness to convene and develop interventions, I like to share two things that have worked for me when I’ve felt lonely. Maybe they will work for you.

Strategies to Combat Loneliness for Nonprofit Professionals

The reality is that if you are feeling lonely, chances are your friends are too. Be intentional about moving beyond the highlight reels on social media and make a real connection with people you care about. Here are a few ideas:

Initiating Meaningful Connections: Beyond the Workplace

Join The NonProfit Hive! Seriously make some time to lean into meeting someone new just for a little bit at the end of the week. Good things happen in these calls!

Ambush phone calls are awesome. People close to me know that I do this regularly. I don’t even text first to warn them of the incoming call. Pretend it is 1980 and just phone. If they are around, they will answer. If they are busy, you can leave a nice message and say something like, “I was thinking of you and wanted to connect. Give me a call back when you have a chance. I’d love to catch up.”

Send a handwritten note with a heartfelt message. “I was just thinking of you and remembered that time when…. I really loved the way you …. I appreciate you.” Join a mastermind group or an online networking forum. There are so many of these happening right now. If they are run well, they can leave you feeling really inspired and seen.

Pretend there is a power outage with no internet. Pull your teenagers out of their room and let them know you want to hear all about their day. Campfires are great for this. Fun food helps.

If it is hard for you to initiate these things, consider hiring a coach. Coaching is an excellent way to carve out time to examine the source of your loneliness, and how to reconnect with the world around you. A good coach will also be able to help you determine if you are really stuck and need the extra help of psychotherapy.

Strategies to Combat Loneliness for Nonprofit Professionals

Harnessing Biology to Battle Loneliness

There are neurotransmitters and hormones in your body that regulate your mood and are triggered when you take certain actions. They are dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins. You can TRIGGER THEM! By understanding and intentionally activating these chemicals, we can take proactive steps to enhance our mental state and combat feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Dopamine, often dubbed the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, rewards us with feelings of pleasure and satisfaction following achievements. Simple actions, like ticking off a task on your to-do list or celebrating small wins, can boost dopamine levels, fostering motivation and a sense of accomplishment.

Oxytocin, known as the “love hormone,” is essential for creating strong bonds and enhancing social connections. Engaging in acts of kindness, hugging a loved one, or even petting an animal can stimulate oxytocin production, promoting feelings of trust, empathy, and closeness.

Serotonin plays a pivotal role in regulating mood, happiness, and anxiety. Exposure to natural sunlight, exercise, and reflecting on past achievements can increase serotonin levels, helping to alleviate depression and anxiety, while fostering a sense of calm and well-being.

Endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, are released during physical activity, laughter, and even consumption of spicy food, providing a euphoric “high” and relieving stress and pain.

Combining Physical Activity and Social Engagement

Trust me, I know that it sounds cliché to suggest: “get outside,” “start a gratitude practice,” “have a 60 second hug with a romantic partner” “spend time in a forest,” “go for a walk in the sun,” “celebrate a little win,” or “finish a project.” It can be really irritating to hear these things when you are already tired, burnt out and lonely. They seem so obvious but science has proven that these activities literally change the physiology of your body. Build weekly or daily habits around these activities and they can have a significant impact on your mental (and physical) fitness.

Just imagine the possibilities if you hacked your brain WHILE making meaningful connections. You could—invite a friend to walk in the forest, sing in a choir instead of the shower, walk your dog with a neighbour and be curious about how they are doing.

Reaching Out: The Power of Community in the Nonprofit Sector

In these turbulent, post-pandemic times our need for connection and community has never been greater. Loneliness is a serious health concern, but you do not have to be alone. It’s very likely that your online “friends” or neighbour or even that best friend you haven’t seen for a year feels the same. Take that first step. Reach out to someone you miss. You won’t regret it.

Have you joined the Nonprofit Hive? If not, you are missing out! Join today 🐝

Kimberley Mackenzie, CPCC, ACC

Kimberley Mackenzie, CPCC, ACC is a leadership coach working with charity executives to get transformative results for themselves and their teams. A charity executive for 22 years, Kimberley built a six-figure consultancy and held her CFRE for 17 years until she was certified by the International Coaching Federation as an Associate Certified Coach and by the Co-Active Training Institute as a Certified Co-Active Professional Coach. She is the former editor for Charity eNews, and an AFP Master Trainer and Group Facilitator. She participated on Rogare’s think tank reviewing Relationship Fundraising and was a driving force in the early days of SOFII.org. Contact Kimberley at k@kimberleymackenzie.ca or follow her on Instagram @kimberleycanada.

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