Workplace loneliness and employee performance are inextricably linked, yet feeling lonely at work remains beyond the scope of most wellbeing programmes. We rarely consider loneliness or how organisational culture could be exacerbating the problem. Feeling lonely at work is more common than you might imagine. We take a deep dive into the research around why feeling lonely at work is bad for performance, bad for our health and bad for business.
Traditional Wellbeing at Work Programmes & the Loneliness Scotoma
So, why are we missing loneliness if it’s impact is so critical? Traditional health and wellbeing programmes focus predominantly on physical activity, a healthy diet and sleep. These are all key components of healthy, happy, high performing individuals and teams, but they omit one key factor. Loneliness. It’s no coincidence that the World Economic Forum (WEF) has identified loneliness as an epidemic. Diet and sleep are a perfunctory scratching of the surface of workplace wellbeing and performance.
Think of loneliness and images of the elderly spring to mind. We erroneously associate loneliness with old age. Think again. The WEF has identified chronic loneliness as a health concern across generations, with 40% of under-25-year olds reporting that they feel lonely. A staggering 80% of under 18 year olds state that they have experienced loneliness at some point, loneliness, then, is not confined to old age.
Workplace Loneliness and Employee Performance
The nature of work is changing. We’re seeing increased time with tech, remote working and remote meetings all of which limit our social connection in the workplace. We may be surrounded by people but that doesn’t mean that we’re connecting with them. Loneliness is not necessarily about being alone and it doesn’t discriminate. It could affect all of us at some point.
Maybe you’re wondering what loneliness has to do with your organisation? If you’re leading a team, perhaps you feel that it’s really none of your business. Are we all just snowflakes or bleeding hearts when we start to worry about loneliness at work? Isn’t it really just beyond the scope of leadership and management?
On the contrary. Solid data supports the fact that loneliness at work impacts negatively upon performance as well as the bottom line. Even if you really don’t care on a personal level, from a business perspective, you probably should. Engagement at work is essential to both resilience and performance.
The Impact of Feeling Lonely at Work
Not only is feeling lonely at work bad for us psychologically, there is a physical component that accompanies the isolation.
Research by Sigdal Barsade, Wharton professor of management at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, found employees who feel lonely are tied to lower job performance. They’re less motivated and experience poorer physical health comparable with smoking and little or no physical activity.
Dan Schawbel, author of “Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation.” states that remote workers are more likely to leave because of loneliness. They’re less committed and less likely to engage with colleagues.
Loneliness as a Virus
Far from an individual issue, loneliness can affect everyone in your workforce. Barsade discovered that loneliness can became part of an invisible culture, one that we often fail to identify “We catch emotions from each other like viruses,” “We don’t realise it’s happening; it becomes behavioural mimicry.” It’s more than possible that you could lose some of your most talented employees because of loneliness at work and lack of social connection.
Loneliness has been found to increase stress and decrease resilience. Add to this the risk of heart disease, diabetes and dementia and loneliness at work is not the kind of epidemic that you are looking to create for obvious reasons. If you recognise that your business culture is adding to the loneliness epidemic, here’s what to do about it.
Addressing Loneliness at Work with Culture
What can businesses do to tackle the causes and impact of loneliness? Here’s how to create a company culture where people feel connected.
Start with your Leadership
Examine your leadership practices. Command and control has been dead in the water for years as an effective strategy but that doesn’t stop some leaders. Show appreciation. Get to know your employees. Embrace black box thinking to cultivate a more open culture. Think about how you approach failure as a business. A culture of blame and humiliation will quickly begin to shut down sharing and social interaction resulting in people feeling increasingly lonely at work.
Support New Employees
This is one of the biggest gripes that we hear in our coaching. New starters are often left with no induction and no support. It’s easy to feel isolated, unsupported and lonely as a new employee. Onboarding is a critical time for new employees, it gives them a real taste of your culture and your approach to employee wellbeing. Ensure you have systems and support in place before they join you.
Time spent in nature will improve your productivity along with your resilience. Consider one to one meetings outdoors or walking supervision. Time spent outdoors as a team can be an effective way to increase team interaction and it’s one of the activities we successfully use in our team coaching sessions.
Find ways of bringing people together. Plan social events where you come together without talking about work. Whether it’s lunch, dinner, running, walking or a post work activity.
Design a Work Space for Connection
Think about your space. How is your physical workspace set up? Is it conducive to connection or does it isolate people? Don’t make the mistake of thinking cramming people into open plan offices is social connection. It isn’t. You’ll achieve the opposite. You can still be ergonomic and create a less lonely working environment. Consider break out areas, spaces for high focus tasks, creating places where people can sit, drink coffee and have lunch rather than eating at their desks.
We’ve successfully worked with thousands of businesses and individuals around the world to help them achieve their goals. We’ve coached hundreds of leaders in business, elite sport and tech. We work internationally with Fortune 100 companies to optimise performance, building resilience and workforce wellness. We provide consultancy, leadership coaching and training. If you’d like to know more about how we can partner with your organisation, get in touch.
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