Loneliness is often seen as a ‘private emotion’ but its impact on productivity and morale makes it a business challenge
It’s a paradox of the modern workplace: the more tools we have to connect with our colleagues, the more open our workspaces become, the more ‘disconnected’ we feel.
Loneliness – the sadness we feel when we are isolated, rejected or ignored in the relationships we seek – has become an epidemic, said former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.
In the US, nearly half of the population, regardless of race or gender, said they sometimes or always feel lonely (46%) or left out (47%), according to 2018 research from health insurer Cigna.
In other developed countries, a similar pattern is emerging from various data sets: about one in five people in the UK and Canada and one in four in Australia experience loneliness at roughly the same frequency as Americans. Many of us may be suffering in silence.
Loneliness in the workplace
With the employee’s emotional wellbeing on the line, the feeling of isolation can impact a person’s productivity and perception of the workplace.
Loneliness is seen primarily as a “private emotion,” but feeling lonely at work can also be considered a social phenomenon that can be observed by colleagues and supervisors, a study by the California State University and Wharton School of Business suggested.
Professors Sigal Barsade and Hakan Ozcelik found that an “employee’s work loneliness triggers emotional withdrawal” from their organisation. Loneliness thus affects team dynamics.
Colleagues who notice a lonely co-worker also view the person’s disposition as a roadblock to being an effective and approachable teammate, so the divide between the team and the co-worker widens.
Loneliness at work isn’t just the problem of the outcast. It’s a business challenge that falls right within the domain of people managers.
The research authors suggested: “Management should not treat work loneliness as a private problem that needs to be individually resolved by employees who experience this emotion.”
Leaders should instead examine loneliness as an organisational problem that needs to be resolved for the sake of the employees and the company, they said.
The loneliest professions
While factors such as gender, race, ethnicity, location and tenure do not effectively predict loneliness in employees, salary and industry provide clues as to who is likely to feel isolated, according to the Harvard Business Review and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
People who earn US$80,000 a year, for instance, reportedly witness a 10% improvement in their affect and social support system compared to those who earn only half as much.
A person’s line of work may also be a better predictor of loneliness. Public sector employees are said to be lonelier than those in corporate or non-profit work, SHRM and HBR noted. This is partly because government workers tend to receive less social support in the workplace.
Data from BetterUp, as cited by the study, identified the following professions as the loneliest:
- Civil service
In contrast, professions that allow for greater social interaction – marketing, sales and social work – reported a lower incidence of workplace loneliness.
Signs of a lonely worker
When addressing workplace loneliness, HR managers will need to observe two general types of situations: voluntary and involuntary isolation.
- Voluntary isolation
The first type of isolation refers to instances when an employee deliberately pulls away from interactions with the team despite other people’s efforts to include the person.
Skipping common social activities, such as participating in office banter or having a drink after work, might simply be due to personality differences between co-workers.
But when an employee lacks enthusiasm for all activities and constantly avoids interaction in any setting or with any set of people, whether in the conference room or at the cafeteria, then such behaviour may be taken as a sign of deeper issues, such as burnout or depression.
It’s crucial to remember the close link between mental health and loneliness. In fact, social isolation is taken to be one of the many signs of depression.
HR managers need to train team leaders how to spot mental health issues in employees and how to respond, especially when more than a few of the following symptoms persist for weeks:
- Social withdrawal
- Low morale
- Lack of interest and focus
- Restlessness and anxiety
- Low productivity
- Involuntary isolation
The second type of isolation refers to instances when an employee is being ignored by others, deliberately or not, despite the person’s efforts to engage in social activity.
Staff who experience involuntary isolation either work independently or seldom collaborate with a team. Some work in a laboratory, out in the field or in a remote/home office; or on night shift or part-time duty.
Loneliness in this sense is brought about by the environment or circumstance the individual is in. It may be due to the nature of one’s job, schedule, workplace, team culture or an overall lack of opportunity to socialise.
How HR can address workplace loneliness
Social mixers may be the easiest answer to building a cordial atmosphere in the workplace, but the problem of social isolation isn’t just about finding someone to have drinks and sing karaoke with.
These activities – while commendable in their goal to ‘break the ice’ – may reduce loneliness to a superficial level, said Hakan Ozcelik, a management professor and one of the authors of the USC-Wharton study.
“[Ideas like] ‘Let’s have more social parties. Let’s bring people together so that they will bond,’ would definitely be a problem for lonely people because they are not connected to begin with,” Ozcelik said during a Knowledge@Wharton podcast.
“You go to a Christmas party. Everybody is having fun, and you are sitting there and feeling that you are not part of the group. You might actually feel even lonelier.”
HR managers should instead put a premium on building meaningful connections at work. After all, people tend to gravitate to each other through shared interests and experiences.
These similarities are uncovered during quieter moments, conversations and smaller group discussions with like-minded people – not always through quick random chats at an office party.
And, yes, even building smaller social circles through special interest groups can encourage the shy co-worker to open up, as opposed to throwing them out into a big group of (unfamiliar) people where the loudest voices often drown out the most timid.
“It’s important to focus on relationship-building rather than increasing the interaction. If somebody is lonely, more interaction might create even more pain, which is more challenging,” said Ozcelik.
“Solutions should be a lot smarter than just having more socials or company picnics on the weekends. They should be more relational, where two human beings can get together and relate so they start bonding.”
Remote and field workers look for the same connection that being in the office entails. While employee portals and team messaging and collaboration apps may connect staff to HQ more easily, leaders should build the tech around a culture of openness and social support.
Managers have the responsibility of regularly checking in with satellite teams, whether online or in person, not only when it comes to discussing their progress but also their wellbeing and morale.
“Clearly, you’re going to be in a much more powerful position if the company as a whole is taking its emotional culture seriously, as well as some aspects of cognitive culture, like having a culture of respect,” said study author Sigal Barsade.
“But the reason emotional culture matters so much in this case is because loneliness is an emotional state. Many companies are only now starting to realise that this type of culture matters.”
The single ‘most impactful’ leadership behaviour HR managers can undertake is to “create opportunities for building shared meaning with colleagues,” the survey by HBR and SHRM found.
“Understand what makes their work meaningful to them, and then connect that to what makes it meaningful for you,” they wrote.
“Use collective wins as an opportunity to celebrate the entire team. This reinforces social cohesion through a shared sense of accomplishment, and avoids leaving some left out in the cold.”
Ozcelik said employees have high expectations from their leaders because our professions “make up a huge component of our identity”.
“We are not doing our jobs just for a paycheque; we want to be a part of the group,” he said. “We want to be respected. We want to feel that we are having a good quality of life.”