By Cynthia Hubert
Loneliness was rampant in the United States even before the coronavirus forced people to stay inside their homes.
Sacramento State professor Hakan Ozcelik, who made that assessment, said now that social isolation has come to define each day for most Americans, the issue is even more profound, disrupting our work and personal lives.
Ozcelik is a professor of management who has studied the effects of emotions on job satisfaction and productivity. In a series of YouTube videos, he is offering information and tips for dealing with loneliness amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As a human being, I am extremely concerned. And as a researcher, I am extremely intrigued,” he said of the potential impacts of sudden, widespread isolation. He fears that the pandemic could make people more vulnerable to loneliness, which he said already is epidemic in society.
- Episode 2: Preventing Loneliness in a Pandemic
“Loneliness is such a painful emotion,” Ozcelik said. “As a researcher, it’s almost a calling for me right now to get this knowledge out there.”
The College of Business Administration’s Organizational Wisdom Studio Project is the force behind the videos, which are hosted by Ozcelik and local actress and director Elisabeth Nunziato. The project connects artists, executives and students in an effort to explore issues through various lenses.
The collaboration began after Ozcelik recognized Nunziato from her stage and movie work and approached her. As a “professional communicator” with an interest in human behavior, Nunziato was fascinated with Ozcelik’s research and agreed to join with him in launching the Wisdom Studio Project and produce live events and videos.
The latest episodes, spurred by the coronavirus fallout, address issues such as the differences between loneliness and isolation, the impacts of loneliness on emotional well being and productivity, and strategies for coping.
Anyone can access the episodes, which Ozcelik and Nunziato are producing from their homes with support from Nunziato’s company, NK Media.
“We want to make them accessible to the world,” Ozcelik said.
Ozcelik, a behavioral scientist who has studied the topic for more than 12 years, explained that loneliness is a state of mind that can affect anyone, even those who are surrounded by many people and have healthy social connections. Isolation is a physical state that most Americans are experiencing for the first time in an effort to prevent spread of the virus.
“When this started happening, it became very obvious that Hakan’s research on loneliness would be immediately relevant,” Nunziato said. “We’re all in a completely new situation in so many ways.”
The current social distancing, while necessary, is problematic because it has no end point, Ozcelik said.
“We were told, ‘You’re going home, and we don’t know when you're coming back,” he said.
Brief bouts of loneliness are common and not necessarily damaging, he said. But prolonged feelings of intense loneliness can affect relationships, work and even physical health.
Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to greater risk of heart disease, obesity, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, and even death, according to the National Institutes of Health. Ozcelik has documented a link between loneliness and declining work performance.
Feelings of loneliness in the new, isolated workplace can easily spill over into personal relationships, he said. Some people respond to loneliness by suppressing their verbal expressions, others by “oversharing” or talking too much.
Buffering against loneliness during the current isolation period can be as simple as picking up the phone every day to connect with friends and relatives, participating in Zoom meetings to hear the voices and see the faces of colleagues, and discussing and clarifying emotions.
Continuing to engage in simple daily rituals also is helpful, said Ozcelik.
“Wake up at the time you normally would. Check your emails. Have your coffee. Get out of your PJs and dress up as you would for work,” he said.
Preserving such routines, he said, reminds us that “this is a crisis, and we’re going to get through it and get on with our previous lives. Let’s not act as though this is normal, because it’s not.”
Ozcelik has coined an acronym that helps highlight techniques for staving off loneliness: ICU, for Interact, Clarify and Utilize rituals.
He said he hopes that his tips will help people get through the pandemic without serious emotional harm.
“Will loneliness in our society be made worse by the current situation? We just don’t know,” he said. “It’s something we will be watching closely. Right now everything is in misalignment. But if we are careful, we can control this and protect ourselves.”
Ozcelik and Nunziato plan to produce about a dozen weekly videos, each addressing a different topic related to the pandemic. Some will feature other leading scholars from around the globe.