Loneliness at work
Putting connection on your to-do list
Loneliness in the workplace is on the rise. Covid-19 has seen many of us working from home over the past year, separated from our colleagues and offices. But even before the pandemic increasing numbers of people were experiencing loneliness in their working lives. Last year three in five people (60%) reported feeling lonely at work. The Co-Op and New Economics Foundation found that loneliness costs UK employers over 2.5 billion pounds a year: from increased sick days and time off to care for others, to lower productivity and staff retention levels. Loneliness doesn’t just affect individuals; it’s bad for business.
Loneliness and isolation at work was once thought of as the exclusive domain of those who visibly worked by themselves: the self-employed, contractors and other types of freelancers or solo workers. But rising levels of loneliness in physical workspaces have shown that you can still feel lonely when you work with other people. Increased use of technology and more agile working has given employees and organisations more flexibility – but often at the cost of culture and connection.
So how can we build more connected workplaces?
Loneliness is often made to feel like it is an individual problem but the way we work can be making us feel lonely. Putting good management practices into place encourages an open, supportive and sociable culture where employees feel connected to their colleagues and organisation.
One important step is reducing the stigma around loneliness. Research by Mind showed the main barriers stopping people from talking about loneliness were embarrassment, lack of trust in colleagues and fear it will have a negative career impact. A Total Jobs survey of 2,000 employees showed that only 1 in 4 women and 1 in 5 men would tell someone at work they were feeling lonely. Most would tell friends or family while 10% would tell their line manager and just 4% would tell their HR department. 34% would tell no one at all.
Together in feeling alone
Since the pandemic, many more of us have experienced loneliness as we’ve worked from home. But it has also forced us to look at the way we work and find more flexible solutions for our modern, multi-tasking lives. Research shows that one in four British workers could work from home for good, with many more organisations offering a mix of home-based and office-based working. We spend a quarter of our lives at work and it’s vital that we have positive and supportive relationships with the people we work with. Loneliness is a two-way street.
What can we do both as organisations and individuals to feel more connected?
Leaders and managers
Drive away disconnection. Does your current organisational set up alienate employees rather than bring them together? Do you prioritise work processes over social connections? Identify current working practices that may be contributing to employee loneliness and take steps to change them.
Reduce the stigma around loneliness. This could be through a direct approach: raising awareness of loneliness in the workplace, offering training and signposting employees to the resources and support they need. Otherwise, you could open up the conversation on a more general angle and focus on wellbeing in the workplace, with loneliness being part of that. Many factors can cause loneliness. Sometimes it’s more beneficial to take a wider, more holistic view of someone’s workplace experience.
Don’t define a person by their loneliness. One of the main barriers to talking about loneliness is a fear of judgment, but we can feel lonely and still be able to do our job well. Concentrate on how a person is feeling rather than their performance. Try to explore the reasons an employee might be feeling lonely, before working together to implement what would help them.
Make connection a priority in the onboarding process. Ask new employees what level of social contact they prefer at work; what communication platforms they feel most comfortable using and things that make them feel part of company culture. Rather than a one-size-fits-all, everyone has different social needs. It’s important to be aware of that from the start and be able to adapt and adjust accordingly.
Use positive or neutral language when discussing loneliness. Often we can unintentionally stigmatise even more when discussing loneliness. Avoid using words like “suffering” from loneliness or “admitting” to it. Loneliness is a normal human emotion. Using words like “experiencing” loneliness and “telling” someone we are lonely helps to normalise the conversation around loneliness and encourages people to open up about it.
Prioritise social time in work. Research shows that the more socially connected a person feels at work, the higher their levels of engagement and productivity. Encourage downtime and demonstrate it by doing it yourself. Put on social events and ask employees what kinds of activities they would like to do, as different people enjoy different things. Include non-work-related conversations in team meetings and ask people about their day and encourage others to do the same.
Tell someone how you’re feeling. We often keep our feelings of loneliness to ourselves for fear of shame or judgment, but feeling lonely is very normal. Do you have a colleague or line manager you can reach out to? Telling someone how you’re feeling can really help and help pave the way for new connections.
Don’t always default to technology. Email is the default mode of communication for most of us in our work lives, but it doesn’t build the same depth or trust as interacting with people in real life. We’re less likely to get to know people online or express our own selves. Instead of emailing or messaging a colleague or client, pick up the phone to them or go and see them in real life instead. As well as the social side, having a five-minute chat with someone is often much easier and more time-efficient than a chain of emails going back and forth!
Don’t make loneliness your fault. When we feel lonely we often put the blame on ourselves and think that it’s because of something we’re doing wrong, but most of the time it’s because we’re not having our social needs met. If you feel that the way your workplace is set up makes you feel isolated, don’t be afraid to tell someone. You’re not directly criticising company procedure, you are just expressing how you feel.
Be proactive. Loneliness is a two-way street and often other people don’t know how we’re feeling. By building more authentic and positive connections in our days we start to reap the rewards - and inspire others to do the same. If you work by yourself, build your own network and community. Join a co-working space or look for a like-minded freelancing network to join. Even if you don’t meet up physically they can be a rich network for support, company and networking opportunities. Can’t find one to join? Start one yourself!
Recognise the effect loneliness is having on you. Loneliness is very fixable but if you have been feeling lonely for a long time, it can start to have an impact on your mental and physical health. Our 3- Step Approach offers practical and reassuring advice on what to do >>
Borrow a dog! Pets are shown to bring a source of comfort, as well as an opportunity to get out for a walk and chat with others. If you don’t have a dog can you reach out and join a network, where you can borrow one for a day while you are at home?
Marmalade Trust runs workshops on workplace loneliness and how to build more connected cultures. Learn more here >>
Co-op and New Economic Foundation ‘The cost of loneliness to UK employers’ 2017