Why Employers Should Care
Today technology allows us to speak with others across the country and the world without having to leave our office. We also see a rise in open floor plan offices aimed at fostering interaction and good communication. While these modern-day opportunities are convenient, they may actually be contributing to loneliness. As human beings, we have an innate need to be connected to others, to belong. Loneliness pulls us away from social connectedness and is becoming a real concern for employers. If not addressed, it can impact office productivity, morale and employees’ health.
What is Loneliness
Loneliness is a normal emotional response that everyone experiences, most commonly in a new environment or setting. However, when these feelings persist, concern for loneliness can arise. Feelings of loneliness do not qualify as a mental health condition, but the two are strongly linked. Loneliness can contribute to mental health conditions including anxiety, depression and addictions. At the same time, having a mental health condition increases one’s chance of feeling lonely or withdrawn1.
Research shows that the impact of loneliness on mortality is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day in health care outcomes and costs1. Yet, many are unaware of the cost of social isolation and lack of social support. Negative consequences of loneliness include, among others:
Like with mental health conditions, stigma exists with loneliness. This, even though surveys in the US and abroad reveal that people don’t have negative opinions about those experiencing loneliness. Yet, most people don’t feel comfortable and may feel ashamed to disclose their feelings of loneliness. This is likely due to fear of being negatively judged and treated differently by others.
How Loneliness Impacts the Workplace
Ironically, the technology connecting us in and out of the workplace is the same technology that contributes to isolation. Despite the tech world we live in, more than 40% of American adults report experiencing loneliness2. Most working Americans spend one third of their day or more at work but don’t consider co-workers as friends3. This negatively impacts the workplace because good, healthy relationships in the workplace are necessary in achieving work goals and maintaining work-life balance3.
Furthermore, loneliness has a significant effect on work output, limiting individual and team performance, reducing creativity and impairing reasoning and decision making3.
Factors that contribute to loneliness include:
Teleworking – employees working virtually may feel cut off from the rest of their team4.
Introverts and Extroverts – introverts working on a team of extroverts may feel like they cannot get a word in edgewise. Whereas, extroverts surrounded at work by introverts can find it difficult to form workplace relationships. Also, working in quiet or solitary environments can be uncomfortable for outgoing extroverts yet the ideal environment for introverts.
Personality Differences – office misunderstandings are common; but if not resolved, feelings of resentment may develop into something deeper, eventually leading to self-imposed isolation.
Lack of social support – employees may exhibit signs of mental sluggishness that impairs productivity, stifles creativity, and hinders decision-making5.
If prolonged, these issues can be costly and lead to:
This directly impacts an organization’s revenue, spending, and organizational performance. The mental and physical effects of social isolation lead to higher costs for sick leave and health insurance claims. On the flip side, positive social relationships strengthen employee retention and productivity—positively impacting the bottom line6.
Tips for Employers
While loneliness is an emerging workplace concern, employers can make a difference in effectively addressing loneliness. Here are five strategies to consider7:
Evaluate the organization’s current state of social connection by asking employees whether they feel valued and whether the corporate culture supports connectedness. Asking these kinds of questions can help inspire positivity and open communication. EY shares their story on creating a corporate culture in which coworkers care.
Build understanding at all levels about high-quality relationships at work. Encourage leaders to establish bonds with employees that will enrich both audiences. It may also be helpful to have new-hires make connections right from the start. During onboarding, these opportunities exist with team lunches or assigning a “work buddy” to show the ropes. These early opportunities for social engagement help new hires make connections sooner.
Strengthen social connections and make it an organization-wide strategic priority. This doesn’t mean that technology and personal interactions have to compete. Consider automating tasks and freeing up more time to focus on employee connections. This can be done by creating regular company-wide clubs and activities that are fun. An example could be book clubs, walking clubs, escape rooms or office trivia.
Encourage employees to seek help when needed and to help each other. Accomplishing this also means making a cultural shift. Simply telling colleagues about feelings of isolation can magnify the problem by highlighting a sense of dissatisfaction with the workplace. Instead, promote programs and activities that offer the opportunity to understand the importance of creating healthy work relationships. ICU is a great resource to encourage caring relationships among co-workers.
Create opportunities for employees to learn more about each other, including personal experiences and interests outside of work. This can be done by finding new ways to celebrate birthdays or holidays. This can also be done by having volunteer events or lunches to connect departments. Case studies for Kent State and TiER 1 Performance Solutions offer great examples of organizations committed to creating a workplace with social connectedness.
Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Baker M, Harris T, Stephenson D. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2015 Mar;10(2):227-37
Anderson, G. Oscar and Colette E. Thayer. Loneliness and Social Connections: A National Survey of Adults 45 and Older. Washington, DC: AARP Research, September 2018.
Sappala, E. and King, M. Having Work Friends Can Be Tricky, but It’s Worth It. Harvard Business Review.
Allen TD, Golden TD, Shockley KM. How Effective Is Telecommuting? Assessing the Status of Our Scientific Findings. Psychol Sci Public Interest. 2015; 16(2):40-68
Cacioppo S, Capitanio JP, Cacioppo JT. Toward a neurology of loneliness. Psychol Bull. 2014; 140(6):1464-504.
Wagner SL, White MI, Schultz IZ, Williams-Whitt K, Koehn C, Dionne CE, Koehoorn M, et al. Social Support and Supervisory Quality Interventions in the Workplace: A Stakeholder-Centered Best-Evidence Synthesis of Systematic Reviews on Work Outcomes. Int J Occup Environ Med. 2015; 6(4):189-204.
Murthy, V. Work and the Loneliness Epidemic. Harvard Business Review.