Right now, in workplaces across the country, people are going about their jobs, seemingly content, but deep down feeling the ache of loneliness.
They aren’t necessarily working alone or all by themselves with no one to talk to. They may be chatting amicably with customers on the phone or in person. Or they may work from home, but are in frequent communication with their coworkers through digital channels. Whatever the case, these lonely workers feel isolated and unnoticed.
Given all the means that people have at their disposal to connect with each other in the workplace – face-to-face meetings, email, social media, messaging apps – one might have expected loneliness in the workplace to be diminishing. Unfortunately, the number of communication channels hasn’t helped. Although technology may have increased the quantity of connections people have in the workplace, it hasn't improved the quality of those connections.
Why It Matters at Work
The rate of American adults who report suffering from loneliness has doubled since the 1980s – it’s now at about 40%. Vivek Murphy, who served as Surgeon General from 2014 to 2017, has called loneliness an epidemic, and the negative health effects of loneliness explain why: it can lead to reduced life expectancy, limited performance and creativity, and impaired reasoning. According to Harvard Business Review, lonelier workers “perform more poorly, quit more often, and feel less satisfied with their jobs.” They report fewer promotions, more job switching, and lower job satisfaction.
To make matters worse, lonely employees are sometimes perceived to be less approachable, less committed, and less trustworthy. In turn, these perceived qualities obstruct communication, collaboration, and teamwork. A person’s loneliness can lead to misperceptions and misjudgments that ripple through a workplace – it’s a classic downward spiral.
But there is some good news! According to Gallup, people who have a best friend at work “are seven times as likely to be engaged in their jobs, are better at engaging customers, produce higher quality work, have higher well-being, and are less likely to get injured on the job.” In contrast, “those without a best friend in the workplace have just a 1 in 12 chance of being engaged.” Gallup found that the single best predictor of higher well-being and engagement was “not what people are doing – but who they are with.” The takeaway for employers: “small increases in social cohesiveness lead to large gains in production.”
What Employers Can Do
Employers can’t take away the loneliness employees feel or make friends for them, but they can have a positive impact by helping to make it easier for lonely employees to be noticed and find friends at work. Here are four things employers can do:
1. Realize that people in your organization may be lonely. Loneliness doesn’t always manifest itself in ways that you’re likely to notice amid the hustle and bustle of your daily activities. You can, however, get a sense for whether loneliness is an issue by observing whether some (or many) employees seldom socialize with others or don’t seem to have close friends at work. Remember, though, that not everyone socializes the same way, and not everyone may want a friend at work. As an employer it’s not your job to ensure that everyone has a work buddy, but you should provide an environment where building friendships is possible.
2. Make room for friendships to grow. Friendships take time and energy to develop and maintain, and employees will only be able to make friends if they have time and energy to do so. If they’re overwhelmed with responsibilities from the start of the work day until its end, they won’t be able to make meaningful connections at work. Step one for many employers will be to ensure that work is not taking place at such a break-neck pace that employees barely have time to get a cup of coffee, let alone have a meaningful conversation with a coworker. This is a good practice not only because helping employees foster friendships is the right thing to do, but also because it will reduce turnover and increase engagement. Breaks have also been shown, time and again, to increase overall productivity.
Setting aside break areas away from where people need to focus on work can be helpful, as can encouraging a culture in which employees know it’s fine, within limits, to socialize with one another during the work day. You can also look for ways to bring people from different teams together, such as multi-team lunches or as part of multi-team collaborations; employees might find that there are people on other teams with whom they feel a real connection.
3. Create traditions for people to get to know one another. These are especially important for new employees who don’t yet know anyone. Obviously, you will introduce new employees to the team, but do so over a span of time and make sure there are follow-up opportunities for people to build on these initial introductions. Sending new employees to lunch or happy hour with just two or three others is a great way to help them make some quick connections that are deeper than a handshake and exchange of job titles.
Mentorship programs, monthly social events, and group volunteer efforts are other ways to get people talking outside their typical work environment. But these opportunities need to arise often enough that employees can get beyond small talk and start to feel like they actually know one another.
4. Offer an employee assistance program. Feelings of loneliness often go hand-in-hand with depression, anxiety, and stress. Creating space to make friends at work won’t necessarily solve these deeper issues, but you may be able to provide resources to help employees improve their mental state overall. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) give employees access to expert, confidential assistance for a range of issues such as mental health conditions, substance abuse, relationship troubles, and financial problems. These services are provided through an EAP Provider, which connects employees with the appropriate resources and professionals.
The workplace can be a lonely place, and when it is, people and productivity can suffer. By raising awareness about workplace loneliness and taking steps to create an environment in which people can easily make friends, employers can help bring the benefits of friendship to their employees and to themselves.
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