Illustration on workplace loneliness by Skinkeape
Illustration by Skinkeape

Work Culture

The workplace is a lonely place, but it doesn’t have to be

By

Published on July 15, 2019

Illustration by Skinkeape

In early 2017, Shelly Schneider accepted a new job at a large insurance company. With a desk surrounded by hundreds of coworkers, she expected to have a robust social experience at work.

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But after two years, Schneider found herself isolated, unhappy, and unproductive.

Schneider excelled in her role as an underwriter, working across all of the company’s service lines and receiving consistently positive feedback from her director. But her role required very little contact with her colleagues, and she found herself falling out of touch with her office neighbors and team members.

“There were many days when no one would even speak to me unless I left my cubicle to talk to someone,” explains Schneider. On the rare occasions when she did try to speak to her colleagues, she was reprimanded by her line manager for wasting company time. Her workplace social life quickly devolved into a series of empty greetings and meaningless small talk. Each day, Schneider would sit at her desk, surrounded by a sea of strangers, alone and frustrated.

After two years, the loneliness grew too much to bear. “I realized that no one really cared as long as I achieved the goals asked of me. It made me feel like I was wasting my time.” One Tuesday morning in the fall of 2018, Schneider quit. As she walked out of the office on her final day, carrying a small box of personal effects, no one asked where she was going, no one told her they’d miss her, and no one hugged her goodbye.

Schneider guesses that many of her former colleagues were experiencing similar issues. Walking out of the building on her final day, Schneider says she felt sorry for the people who had to return to their desks the next day. And she was right to worry. Loneliness at work is a huge issue across the world. According to the EY Belonging Barometer, 40 percent of employees feel isolated in their role, driving higher disengagement and lower productivity. 

If we don’t have genuine personal connections with those people surrounding us, they are really just strangers whose professional or social circles overlap with ours.

What is workplace loneliness?

“Loneliness is the feeling of being alone, left out, and isolated, regardless of how many people are around you,” explains Jenny Maenpaa, a psychotherapist specializing in professional and organizational development. “It’s only alleviated by fostering meaningful human connection with one another, so our artificial transactions of polite chit chat with a colleague, barista, or fellow commuter don’t count.” 

Maenpaa says loneliness is a growing problem in our society, especially in our workplaces. “As an average single urban-dwelling adult, we walk to the subway with our headphones in, order coffee on an app, enter our offices with a keycard, and sit down at our computers to email and message our colleagues sitting just feet away,” says Maenpaa. “We eat lunch at our desks or in a corner of the lunchroom glued to social media, and when the day is over, we walk back out with our headphones in and ride the subway home again to order delivery from an app. And we do it day after day.”

As Schneider discovered in her role, merely being surrounded by people doesn’t alleviate loneliness. Maenpaa explains that people often feel loneliest at work, in public, or at parties. If we don’t have genuine personal connections with those people surrounding us, they are really just strangers whose professional or social circles overlap with ours.

Maenpaa also highlights a lesser known dimension of loneliness: people also suffer from loneliness when they are not heard or understood. In roles like this, it feels like you are working for the sake of working, which undermines your very purpose. According to Maenpaa, silos like these are increasingly common, leaving a growing portion of our workforce cut off from their colleagues.

What does loneliness cost?

The effects of loneliness are damaging for both the individual and the company. Lonely workers are significantly more unhealthy than their connected colleagues, exhibiting increased risks of cardiovascular disease and depression and compromised immunity. Lonely workers also perform worse in their roles, exhibiting impaired creativity, productivity, and decision making.

Research suggests that companies with high disengagement and loneliness experience almost 37% higher absenteeism, 49% more accidents, and 16% lower profitability.

Of course, this has an effect on the performance of organizations as a whole. Without strong interpersonal relationships, people quickly dehumanize each other, which inevitably leads to abrasive team dynamics. Research from the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University and the Gallup Organization suggests that companies with high disengagement and loneliness experience almost 37 percent higher absenteeism, 49 percent more accidents, and 16 percent lower profitability.

As former United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy summarized in Harvard Business Review, “Our understanding of biology, psychology, and the workplace calls for companies to make fostering social connections a strategic priority.”

Why are we lonely?

Before we can tackle loneliness, we need to understand what causes it. But loneliness is a complex emotional response, and any specific occurrence is likely caused by a multitude of different structural and cultural drivers.

“New communication technologies like email and instant messaging are reducing face-to-face meeting time,” explains health researcher Bart Wolbers, and these technologies “cannot replace real social connections.” While modern communication strategies are functional, Wolbers explains that they strip us of the in-person social interactions we need to feel a sense of belonging.

Related to this is the growth in flexible working conditions. “During the last few decades, companies have increasingly adopted more flexible work environments, which means you're no longer spending your work days with colleagues you see every day,” said Wolbers. Sometimes, that means working unusual hours when no one else is in the office. Other times, it means working in a physically isolated location away from your colleagues. Ultimately, it means less in-person contact."

Beverly Friedmann, for example, works as a content manager for a consumer website. She has a great team with a personable line manager, whom she speaks to on a daily basis. Despite this, she admits the long hours spent writing on her own can be tough. After eight hours with only her keyboard for company, Friedmann says feelings of loneliness can start to creep in. Considering the rapid rise in remote working—IWG discovered that 70 percent of professionals now work remotely at least one day a week—millions more people are dealing with similar feelings each year.

While it’s right to highlight the drawbacks of modern working practices, it’s also important to recognize the benefits they offer. Friedmann, for example, works remotely for a company based far away from her home. Without the option of remote work, she simply would not have had that opportunity.

Wherever possible, Scott recommends you default to in-person communication. It’s faster, clearer, and strengthens the personal connection among staff members.

Then there's the growth in non-participatory jobs. “More and more jobs today don't require any face-to-face interactions,” says Wolbers. “The entire Information Technology sector barely existed 30 years ago. Now, it employs millions of people who don't have to communicate frequently to get their daily tasks done.”

Finally, Wolbers highlights underlying economic changes. “Most lower- and middle-class people have to work much harder to make ends meet,” says Wolbers. “Labor compensation as a percentage of the total economy has gone down and workplaces are getting streamlined, leading to a society in which every five minutes count.” Wolbers explains that this economic squeeze usually decreases the amount of time people are granted to socialize within the workplace. Shelly Schneider experienced this firsthand when her employers pushed her to maximize the time at her desk to the detriment of informal conversations with her colleagues.

Wolbers admits that these drivers are both significant and deeply-ingrained—but he remains optimistic. He believes that with careful intervention from senior staff, most organizations can reduce loneliness and begin fostering genuine connections among their employees once more.

Building a better workplace

While some companies have scrambled to address loneliness with lavish parties, dinners, off-sites, volunteer trips, and so on, there are also simple, everyday changes that can have just as profound an effect.

Default to in-person communication

According to communication expert Kim Scott, many people opt for digital communication tools like email or text, believing that they’re more efficient than an in-person conversation. But usually, they’re wrong.

“Around 80 to 90 percent of communication is nonverbal,” said Scott, during an interview with Dropbox. By communicating via email, instant message, or phone, you lose that meaning, which can lead to misunderstandings and confusion. And worse, these communication methods poorly mimic real in-person conversations and fail to provide the social experiences we need to thrive.

Scott explains that there is a hierarchy of communication mediums. “A video call is better than a phone call. Video is better than just audio. A phone call is way better than an email.” But wherever possible, Scott recommends you default to in-person communication. It’s faster, clearer, and strengthens the personal connection among staff members.

Encourage Mentorship

In June, 2011, Alex Burbidge moved hundreds of miles across the UK to start a new job in the engineering industry. As a young graduate, the unknowns of the situation fanned the flames of doubt in his mind, burning away the excitement he once felt. On his first morning, Burbidge’s line manager showed him to his desk, briefed him on his work, and left him to it. After four weeks, Burbidge was coping with the role but felt very much like an outsider—and it would stay that way for the rest of his one-year contract.

According to CEO of MyCorporation, Deborah Sweeney, Burbidge’s onboarding experience—or more precisely, his complete lack of an onboarding experience—is surprisingly common. Many line managers thrust new hires into roles and expect them to immediately perform at the level of a seasoned employee. This, Sweeney says, leads to employees panicking and withdrawing from their colleagues and the organization.

Sweeney, however, has implemented a simple change to her onboarding process to help engage new hires with their colleagues and the organization. “We help employees integrate into our organization by assigning them a mentor,” explains Sweeney. “Our mentors not only help employees better develop their skill sets and ease into their role, but they also develop personal relationships with mentees.”

As Anthony Tjan, founder of venture capital firm Cue Ball, explained in Harvard Business Review: “At its highest level, mentorship is about being “good people” and having the right “good people” around us — individuals committed to helping others become fuller versions of who they are.”

By surrounding new staff members with outstanding people, Sweeney believes she shows that her organization genuinely cares about its employees. And that type of environment can help employees feel less lonely.

While mentoring is most prevalent in workplaces with formal schemes, the onus is not solely on the employer. Individuals should seek out informal mentoring relationships or recommend more formal mentoring schemes to their line manager.

Bake in social time

When Ollie Smith was building his startup team, he decided to recruit from all across the world. That way, he could pull from the widest talent pool and push ahead of his geographically-limited competitors.

But last year, Smith noticed some of his staff were starting to act strangely. They were more disconnected from their work and seemed more abrasive in their interactions. He decided to run an all-team video call to discuss the problem. Many of his team members identified the same issue: after a year at the startup, it still felt like they were working with strangers.

It was suddenly so obvious to Smith. His team spent eight hours a day working together but they were never really together. They never had time to socialize and get to know each other as actual people beyond their profile pictures and email addresses.

Smith’s solution was to manufacture relaxed social time. Each Thursday afternoon, Smith’s team members log on to a video call and simply hang out—something he dubbed Team Thursday. While they’ll often play simple games, much of their time is spent chatting and getting to know each other on a personal level.

Smith admits that Team Thursday might seem like a waste of time—after all, his staff members are purposefully not working—but he believes the benefits are worth it. And he believes all teams could benefit: “Although my team is geographically distributed, I would encourage all organizations to manufacture some level of social time, even if it’s 10 or 20 minutes per week. You would be amazed at the bonds that form when people are allowed to just enjoy each other’s company.

Build effective social spaces

When Steve Jobs designed Pixar’s headquarters, he structured the building around a central atrium. Jobs envisioned the atrium as a melting pot for Pixar’s diverse staff of artists, writers, and computer scientists. By encouraging spontaneous meetings between staff members, the space would lead employees to find acquaintances, develop friendships, and spread ideas.

“At first, I thought this was the most ridiculous idea,” said Pixar producer Darla Anderson, during an interview with The New Yorker. But, after experiencing the melting pot atrium firsthand, Anderson realized that Jobs was right. “I get more done having a cup of coffee and striking up a conversation or walking to the bathroom and running into unexpected people than I do sitting at my desk.”

Few organizations have the budget to redesign the architecture of their workspace, but that doesn’t mean they should ignore their social spaces entirely. “To cultivate more social interactions employers should create social gathering places at work, such as break rooms with lots of food options, seating options, music and so on,” explains psychologist Wyatt Fisher. “The more inviting the space the more likely it will be used.”

Share your successes

With technological, economic, and cultural factors cutting off connections between staff members, it’s easy for their work to become siloed and insulated. A graphic designer, for example, may produce a beautiful illustration yet never see how it slots into a larger marketing campaign. According to entrepreneur Sandeep Kumar Aggarwal, this can lead to employees feeling disengaged from their organization and isolated from their colleagues.

“We all have the same desire for meaningful work, belonging, social connection, ownership, and purpose,” says Aggarwal. “These reasons fuel pride and connection to the workplace and motivate us to strive for personal excellence.” To highlight meaningful work in his team, Aggarwal uses something called a Crush it Call.

“During our Crush it Calls, every employee calls out a particular coworker for crushing it,” explained Aggarwal. “This is a chance for coworkers to show appreciation through recognition and engage an individual with the team.” After introducing Crush it Calls, Aggarwal says his employees are happier, less burned out, and more willing to experiment with new ideas.

Maenpaa believes there’s a strong psychological explanation for this. “Shouting out another person’s wins is a great strategy for combating impostor syndrome and fostering meaningful connections,” explains Maenpaa. “When we highlight another person’s accomplishments, we’re saying, ‘I see you, I respect you, and I want everyone else to hear my endorsement of your work.’”

Reconnecting people

As New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg writes in his book Going Solo: “It’s the quality, not the quantity of social interaction that best predicts loneliness.” As we’ve seen, a handful of organizations are already starting to implement innovative processes and policies to improve the quality of their teams' interactions and reconnect people with their colleagues.

After leaving her role, Shelly Schneider went on to work in a number of businesses that did tackle loneliness. Schneider explains that in her experience, a workplace’s treatment of loneliness depends on the company culture and ownership of the problem at the very top. If an organization doesn’t have someone driving progress, it’s likely staff members will end up like she did: alone, isolated, and disengaged.

To drive real change and effectively combat loneliness, Schneider believes we need founders, business owners, managers, and HR teams around the world to own the problem of loneliness and implement effective employee engagement solutions. Once we do that, we can push back against the harmful effects of loneliness and reconnect people with each other.