Insights & Ideas

Overcoming loneliness at work

Learn how reducing loneliness at work leads to better business outcomes and more rewarding careers.

Do you feel like the Eleanor Rigby or Father McKenzie of the office? While you might not be writing sermons no one will hear, you—or members of your team—are probably lonely. According to EY’s Belonging Barometer 2.0 report, 82% of 5000 worldwide respondents have felt lonely at work.1

Loneliness isn’t just a crummy feeling, it’s a serious workplace problem. It makes people less effective, less engaged, and less likely to be promoted. Lonely people get paid less, leave their jobs sooner, and have a greater risk of burnout. Loneliness erodes physical health and drives up health costs.

Whether you’re lonely yourself or you manage a team, it’s time to learn about loneliness and what you can do about it.

Ah, look at all the lonely people

We’re not just lonely at work, we’re lonely in general. According to the stats in the American Time Use Survey, America is in a “friendship recession.” Although it’s easy to blame the pandemic for loneliness, the amount of time we spend with friends and colleagues has been plummeting steadily since 2013. In 2012, we spent 15 hours a week enjoying time with friends and colleagues, but by 2019 it was less than three hours.2

It’s safe to say about half of the population is feeling lonely. 53% of remote workers surveyed said they always or sometimes feel isolated from others, but 48% of people who work in the office said the same.3 According to Cigna, less than half of lonely employees say they work efficiently and 42% said they were “mentally somewhere else” while at work.4

What is loneliness?

Officially, loneliness is a situation, not a personality trait or an emotion. It happens when someone feels like their social needs aren’t being met in a specific context. Psychologists also describe it as a fear that no one would support you in a time of need. In fact, scientists suspect there’s a biological and evolutionary component to loneliness. Our stone-age ancestors felt loneliness and evolved in the safety of groups. (And those separated from the Paleolithic pack became saber-tooth-cat snacks.) Studies show that lonely people today still have a “heightened sensitivity of threats.”5

While having a “pack” of friends might be great, just having one best friend can make a difference. Gallup research shows that individuals who have even one good friend at work stay in their jobs longer, feel more engaged, and put effort into their job.6

Who does loneliness affect most at work?

Everyone has bouts of loneliness throughout their lives. But in the workplace, some people are more at risk of feeling lonely:

  • People with poor work-life balance. Work-life balance is a key factor in our slide toward solemness. According to psychologist Dr. Marisa G. Franco, this is known as “learned loneliness.” When we work all the time and don’t socialize, we get so used to being alone that we become used to having unfulfilled needs when it comes to social interaction.7
  • People from historically excluded and marginalized groups. This population is especially vulnerable to loneliness— 75% of Hispanic adults and 68% of Black/African American adults are classified as lonely.4 Dealing with code-switching and discrimination at work can make them feel even more alone.
  • Leaders (especially executives). In many workplaces, leaders feel like they must be authoritative and show no emotional vulnerability—which leads to isolation.

How can you deal with loneliness at work?

When you’re feeling lonely at work, it can seem like there’s nothing you can do. You start thinking, “I don’t fit in here” or “my teammates just aren’t interested in me.” However, experts say you can change your experience with work and a heavy dose of courage.

Here are a few tactics you can try (even if you’re an introvert):

  • Turn off the danger reflex. When you feel isolated, your evolutionary brain kicks in and signals danger. Remember, the statistics show you’re probably not the only person feeling lonely.
  • Take the initiative to create connections. Find a reason to contact a person in your office—ask if they have a few minutes to chat about a cool project they just did or an idea they have. Compliments go a long way to building friendships. You could also thank a person for helping you with a work task or volunteer to help on a project they’re interested in. If the short chat goes well, see if they want to go for coffee to learn more. (Pro tip: Extroverted salespeople are often easy to approach and it’s their job to make connections.)
  • Find common ground. Even if you’re separated by work role, age, cultural background, or another factor, look for some shared interests. Maybe you all like pets or agree that Beyoncé should’ve won that Grammy. Scope out LinkedIn and see if you have anything in common with your teammates that you can talk about.
  • Change where you work. If you’re at the office, get out of the cube farm and spend some time in a common space. If you work from home, go to the library or a coworking space—invite any nearby colleagues to come, too.
  • Switch teams or projects. Get to know a whole new group of people at work by putting yourself in a new situation.
  • Join a networking community. You can also look for professional camaraderie outside of your office. Meet with people who have similar careers or are in similar situations.

Sound scary? That’s where the courage comes in. The more you try, the more chances you have for success. Remember, just creating one good friend can change the game.

As a manager, how can you help employees feel more connected?

In the past, loneliness at work might have sounded like a “personal problem.” But the culture of an organization or team can create an environment where loneliness thrives. And, when that happens, work outcomes are negatively impacted.

Know the signs of loneliness at work

As a manager or leader, it’s important to notice the signs of loneliness in employees. They might:

  • Seem tired or burned out
  • Have decreased productivity
  • Be in a bad/sad mood often
  • Stop speaking up or being proactive
  • Avoid other employees and group activities

Create psychological safety

Psychological safety is the belief that you can speak up, take risks, and bring your true self to work without negative consequences. While creating psychological safety is often discussed in manager-leader relationships, it’s also a factor in peer-to-peer interactions. People need to feel like they are an accepted part of the team to fully contribute. As a result, leaders need to strive for an inclusive culture where people feel safe being themselves.

Provide opportunities for interaction

Leaders can help employees create connections and feel like they belong in many ways. For example, leaders can:

  • Listen to employees. Take time to get to know each employee—their goals, their fears, their challenges. Treat them with compassion and follow up regularly.
  • Organize small group activities. To create deeper relationships between employees, create some small group activities. That could be a business book club, doing an escape room, or forming a committee to tackle a challenge. Anything that has a lot of conversation (extra points if it includes working together toward a shared goal).
  • Encourage mentorship programs. Mentorship relationships create interaction for the mentor and the mentee—without the social awkwardness of trying to be “friends” at the beginning. In addition to traditional mentorship arrangements, employees can “mentor” each other in areas of expertise. For example, a Gen-Z employee can mentor a Baby Boomer on how to use a new technology application.
  • Formalize (and model) sharing. It can be less awkward for shy employees to share information about their lives when leaders and managers make it a normal activity. Leaders should kick off the process by sharing something simple (favorite songs, favorite movies) then have employees follow. And if you need inspiration on what kinds of ways to creatively share, we’ve got you covered.)
  • Reward people who proactively create connections. Microsoft research found that companies that provide bonuses and promotions for internal relationship-building activities also had employees with higher levels of job satisfaction and happiness.8

These opportunities provide employees with conversation starters and lead to finding shared interests—with leads to positive interaction and better team outcomes overall.

Ready to build more community and connection in your organization?

At Salo, we’re building a world that works better together. Want to combat (or prevent) loneliness in your workplace? We have senior-level HR consultants who can help. To learn more, connect with us today.

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