** This article was originally published in in the CAI-RMC Common Interest Magazine Vol. 41, No. 6: Planning Ahead/Goals/Community Visions issue **

I was asked to write an article about loneliness in our industry. Where to begin when there’s so much to say? Covid-19 and forced isolation? The curse of technology on quality connection? Numerous factors could cause loneliness, but the chapter asked me to focus on one: How do negative interactions in our industry impact loneliness? In my opinion, they are a key creator of it.

What is Loneliness?

I wasn’t aware of the current loneliness epidemic until I read the Surgeon General’s recent advisory: Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation. The advisory defines “loneliness” as:

…a subjective internal state. It is the distressing experience that results from perceived isolation or unmet need between an individual’s preferred and actual experience.

First, loneliness is subjective. For some, being alone frequently or having few social connections is not loneliness. When I’m alone, for example, I often take comfort in the solitude, as it allows time for both reflection and getting things done. The distraction of people is gone. But being lonely? I could be in a room full of people, or engage in several connections a day, yet still feel lonely. Loneliness is personal.

Second, loneliness is the upsetting experience of perceived isolation; when we perceive a gap between our desire for social connection and our actual experience of it. And, while our individual circumstances could be what brings about loneliness, our HOA experiences can exacerbate it.

The Surgeon General emphasizes how loneliness poses a serious threat to general well-being and long-term physical health. Citing to well-documented studies, the advisory states that lack of social connection:

  • is as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,
  • is associated with a 32% increase in risk of stroke,
  • more than doubles the odds of depression or anxiety, and
  • is the strongest, most reliable predictor of suicide attempts.

    I suggest you read the advisory, as the statistics alone are startling.

    If loneliness is a “significant predictor of premature death” (my favorite grim reaper line buried in the advisory), then social connection is the goal. In explaining the level of one’s social connection, the advisory provides these factors:

    • Structure – the number and variety of relationships and frequency of interactions.
    • Function – the degree to which relationships serve various needs (your support system).
    • Quality – the positive and negative aspects of relationships and interactions.

    The third factor seems most relevant to this article. We may have a high volume of interactions, but need to draw attention to their quality.

    Negative Interactions in the Industry

    The HOA industry has always been a difficult one, not only because of the numerous conflicts, but also the constant negative portrayal of HOAs. But what is it about today that makes it more difficult? What present factors shape the quality of our HOA social connections?

    First, we are living in angry times. Nerds like me who read Gallup polls know that we are living in a sadder, angrier, and more stressful world. The animosity in the air is hard to ignore; the political climate is horrendous; the seeming lack of care (or energy to care) is woeful.

    The HOA world is a natural arena for venting anger and disputes. But where there used to be gradations of disagreement (and respectful or at least professional debate), today there is polarization at every turn. And, instead of thoughtful discussion, there is chest-beating, circling of wagons, preparation for a fight. Loneliness can arise in the constant face of, and preparation for, anger and conflict.

    Second, we have demanding jobs, often with little help. Our industry focuses on one of the most important things in people’s lives – their homes. So, we are constantly scrutinized for timeliness, responsiveness, and accuracy (which is within our control), but also dispute-resolution skills, patience, and thick skin (which we may not have expected when signing up for the job).

    Demands are high, so support is critical. But folks are not exactly lining up for the job. It’s difficult to find and retain board members, managers, HOA attorneys, etc. The lack of help, in face of increasing demand, could produce loneliness through:

    • feeling like you have to shoulder all of the burdens yourself;
    • feeling isolated, invisible and insignificant;
    • feeling like you’re not making any headway, in individual tasks and the general success of your community(ies).

    Third, frequent exposure to negative interactions. In this respect, I’m writing specifically about community association managers – the front line. You may have one boss at the office, but you have thousands of critics in the field, each with the ability to connect with you and make your day infinitely worse, just through the power of words.

    And the frequency of interaction comes from the numerous opportunities for contact: at meetings, in the clubhouse, during walk-throughs, in your office, over the phone, via email, on Nextdoor, the list goes on. You may manage 10 communities, but those communities spawn infinite opportunities for negative interaction. Constant criticism, persistent conflict, and a daily environment of hostility, could all lead to loneliness, particularly if you feel like you’re fighting it alone.

    I believe we in the HOA industry, because of all of the above, have trained ourselves to be self-reliant and to bury our feelings. This leads to loneliness and isolation.

    What Do We Do About It?

    So how to combat loneliness in our industry? I don’t have the answers, but I suggest that it takes thoughtful conversation, then deliberate action.

    I’m certainly not trying to diminish the numerous resources and opportunities for positive social connection that are available to anyone who works in our world. But we still need to raise awareness of the loneliness epidemic, understand and respond to it, and adopt a culture that promotes social connection.

    The Surgeon General’s advisory includes six pillars to advance social connection, some of which are highly applicable to our industry. I suggest we start there, then keep the conversation going.

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