If you’re feeling lonely at work, it can have a big impact on your personal wellbeing. It can negatively affect your motivation levels, your self-esteem and leave you feeling disconnected from the organisation. As a naturally social being, good relationships are intrinsic to your psychological health and without meaningful or supportive connections you may feel isolated, excluded or even develop a sense of imposter syndrome.
Pre-pandemic, over 60% of employees felt isolated at work, according to a 2020 survey by UK mental health charity Mind, with 68% saying this had directly impacted their stress levels and over 26% of people stating they would leave their jobs due to isolation.
What’s more, loneliness can have very real impacts on your health too; research has found that social isolation can be linked to health risks such as elevated stress levels, addiction and sleep disturbance. And according to research by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the Campaign to End Loneliness, women report feeling lonely more frequently than men, and are significantly more likely than men to report feeling lonely ‘often or always’. The reasons for this may include a greater emphasis among women on the importance and quality of social connections, but other reasons include time-poverty and being in the minority at work, with the associated lack of understanding and shared perspective that this situation can bring.
While positive connection is universally good for us, loneliness is in fact a subjective experience with highly individual causes. Both the amount and type of connections we have can affect our levels of loneliness at work. Some people may work from home with minimal face-to-face contact and yet still feel comfortable in themselves and their life, while others may be in an office full-time but lack the type or levels of meaningful contact they need to feel a true sense of belonging.
The recent rise in virtual working has shone a brighter light on the problem of loneliness at work than ever before, but it is not just a problem for remote workers alone — as hybrid working becomes a norm for many organisations, the impetus to ensure we are meeting our needs in this way is even greater.
For its recent EY Belonging Barometer 2.0 study, EY professionals surveyed more than 5,000 employees in companies across the US, the UK, China, Germany and Brazil with some striking findings: more than 80% of employees said they felt or feel lonely at work — and crucially 49% feel lonelier today than they did prior to the pandemic.
Loneliness then, it appears, is not something we are — ironically — alone in as we work to understand how to optimise the future of work. So, how can you take control and mitigate or combat loneliness in your work life effectively? We look at five ways to take control and help you to make the connections with yourself and others that you need in order to feel a greater sense of wellbeing, inclusion and belonging at work.
Seek to understand your lonely feelings
To make a change you first need to know what is lacking. And while there are many common elements of loneliness, it is also a subjective phenomenon and no two individual’s experience of it will be the same. Working out that you are lonely in the first place even can be hard — the empty, dislocated feelings that come from loneliness can easily be misdiagnosed as stress or depression, while being busy can lead you to dismiss your feelings until they become overwhelming. Take a Loneliness Test to get a better idea of whether loneliness is at the root of your negative feelings. Only once you have a clear idea of how connected, seen and supported you feel, can you work to mitigate any feelings of lack and make a change. For some, the gap will be the background hum of people when remote working; for others, it’s meaningful or regular connection with colleagues in the office or knowing more about colleagues than just what they do in the organisation. Asking yourself what types of connection you need to feel a sense of belonging will help you shift your mindset to a proactive one that is actively looking to create more conducive conditions to connect. Gallup research found a link between ‘having a best friend’ at work and the amount of motivation someone has for their role — and while not everyone will find a bosom buddy at work, even small intentional moves toward camaraderie can have a powerful effect on our sense of personal power and, ultimately, our belonging.
Push for culture change
Experiencing loneliness at work is not always purely a personal issue — in some cases it may be that your workplace culture is playing a large part in creating it, either by inadvertently promoting isolation through working practices or conversely not doing enough to foster communication and team building in a hybrid world. This in turn can be exacerbated by other factors such as overly heavy workloads that can make it even harder to make meaningful connections. If your organisation’s working practices are contributing to a sense of disconnect then it’s important to raise this with your line manager. Research from The Wharton School and California State University found that 90% of employees suffering from loneliness said they would not tell their supervisor they were struggling. But if employees do not flag up issues of disconnection, they cannot help their organisation to create positive change — leaving them with a blind spot that can affect wellbeing, productivity and retention. Looking at where you are feeling ‘out on your own’ and at opportunities for greater teamwork or collaboration in your daily work can be a start in creating a more connected experience. And if you are a manager, consider proactive moves such as encouraging people to become allies for colleagues and teammates, instigating a buddy system or initiatives such as online or offline end of week socials, which help to build a culture of belonging and inclusion in the workplace.
Step outside your role
Work is not only your job and attendant tasks, but the business culture and environment you belong to — and within that there will be opportunities to connect with people away from your role. Contributing to a charity event or joining a workplace sports challenge can also fire up dopamine in your brain through acts of kindness (the so-called ‘helper’s high’) or physical exercise to help you feel better all round, as well as giving you something to talk about with others in the office. And if you can’t find anything to join in your organisation then — again — proactivity is key. Setting up a special interest group like a lunchtime running club or a charity challenge creates new ways to challenge and change your loneliness — and may just give someone else who is feeling a lonely a bit of a lifeline too.
Make hybrid work for you
Neuroscience shows that only in-person interactions trigger the full suite of physiological responses and neural synchronisation needed for optimal human communication. As such, choosing to work in a hybrid model rather than fully remotely may be a solution to mitigating loneliness at work. With hybrid working as the ‘new normal’ for many, it’s imperative to make the most of these new spaces and opportunities to connect in a conscious way. As a ‘work in progress’, this new model is being co-created by organisations and their employees so it’s vital to be proactive about finding your way positively within it and giving feedback. Using your time strategically is important too, both for effective work but also to maintain a sense of belonging and connection. Think about reserving ‘thinking and writing’ work for homeworking days to allow full concentration and consciously booking up your days in the office with sociable elements, scheduling in meetings, strategy discussions and one-to-ones to catch up, plan, brainstorm, stay visible and reconnect with colleagues. Finding a supportive co-working space to work from on days when you are not in the office may also be a better way to work flexibly than sitting alone in your front room.
Craft your job
If you’re lonely at work, use job crafting to change elements of your role to help ensure that you’re less alone or isolated. Job crafting can involve ‘task crafting’, changing the type and scope of tasks that make up your job and ‘relational crafting’, altering who you interact with in your work and how much. Are there things you always do alone that might be better done as a team or partnership task, providing you with valuable company and possibly even sparking greater innovation and energy around it? Perhaps you need to rethink your work schedule if it keeps you so busy that you can’t connect with colleagues in any way. Or maybe you could think about making some changes to spice up a stale role; feelings of loneliness can sometimes come from feeling demotivated by your work, and your ability and enthusiasm to connect can be reignited by looking to see what you enjoy and working with line managers to adjust your role accordingly.