What is Loneliness?
Loneliness is a normal emotional response that everyone experiences. It is most commonly experienced in a new environment or setting. Feelings of loneliness do not qualify as a mental health condition, but the two are strongly linked. When feelings of loneliness persist, this can be a cause for concern as loneliness can contribute to mental health conditions including anxiety, depression and addictions. At the same time, having a mental health condition can increase one’s chance of feeling lonely or withdrawn
As with mental health conditions, a certain amount of stigma exists with loneliness. Most people don’t feel comfortable disclosing that they are experiencing loneliness and may feel ashamed to disclose their state of mind. This is likely due to fear of being negatively judged and treated differently by others.
Negative consequences of loneliness can include:
- Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
- Compromised immunity
- Increased risk of depression
- Shortened lifespan
“As with mental health conditions, a certain amount of stigma exists with loneliness.”
How Can Loneliness Impact the Workplace?
Loneliness in the workplace can trigger employees’ emotional withdrawal. As a result, they backpedal from participating in activities that involve working in groups, and they stop communicating and interacting with their peers.
“Loneliness in the workplace can trigger employees’ emotional withdrawal.”
Loneliness negatively impacts the workplace, because good, healthy relationships in the workplace are necessary in achieving work goals and maintaining work-life balance. Loneliness has a significant effect on productivity and work output. It limits individual and team performance, reduces creativity and impairs people’s reasoning and decision making functions.
“…the digital technology that connects people both in and outside of the workplace is the same technology that contributes to their isolation.”
Unfortunately, since the advent of COVID-19, with social distancing and lockdown protocols in play, the digital technology that connects people both in and outside of the workplace is the same technology that contributes to their isolation. Global research outcomes illustrate that despite the “hyper-connected world” we live in a large percentage of various populations are lonely. Research in the United States reveals that more than 40 percent of American adults are experiencing loneliness. In the United Kingdom, over 9 million people (more than the population of London) suffer from loneliness. In Japan, almost 30,000 people die of loneliness every year.
Factors that contribute to loneliness in the workplace include:
- Remote working: Employees working virtually may feel cut off from the rest of their team.
- Introverted and extraverted temperaments: Introverts working within 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: Without support employees may exhibit signs of mental sluggishness that impacts negatively productivity, stifles creativity, and hinders decision-making.
The Impact of Workplace Loneliness
- It affects interpersonal relationships: Loneliness in the workplace triggers emotional withdrawal. As a result, other employees also stop including the individual in activities and decision-making processes. This disrupts healthy relationships between colleagues and can cause internal conflict.
- It deteriorates mental health: Feelings of isolation can cause depression, anxiety and in some extreme cases even suicide. Loneliness can make an individual feel disconnected or alienated from those around them. As a result, they feel nobody understands or cares about them. Loneliness festers a lot of self-doubt and insecurity. In a vicious circle, the person will then isolate themselves from others, which further gives rise to negative thoughts and emotions.
- It weakens physical health and spurs on addictive behaviours: When people feel they lack an emotional connection with anyone or don’t have anyone, they “self-medicate”, turning to things that they can hold on to. Thus, they start smoking or consuming alcohol or getting addicted to drugs. Apart from this, loneliness increases the risk of serious cardiovascular diseases. A 2016 study 1 involving 1,81,000 adults found that loneliness increases the risk of coronary heart disease by 29 percent.
- It reduces employee engagement: In the context of an organisation, workplace loneliness refers to feeling disengaged and disconnected from work colleagues and peers. In the event that employees feel they lack the desired connection with their peers, they also become emotionally detached with the organisation and its success. This lack of belonging reduces their commitment to the organisation. As a result, employees will rarely get involved with the organisation’s functions and important decision-making processes. The overall result is reduced employee engagement.
- Ultimately it can increase employee turnover: Workplace loneliness over a long time can even make employees decide to leave the organisation. Since employees who feel lonely feel no attachment to their work and organisation, their motivation to work and perform declines. With their sense of belonging to the organisation diminished, they feel they have no purpose in the organisation. This can lead them to make the decision to leave.
Tips for Employers
Employers can make a difference in effectively addressing loneliness. Here are five strategies to consider:
- Evaluate your organisation’s current state of social connection by asking employees whether they feel valued and whether the corporate culture supports connectedness. Asking this sort of question can open communication and inspire positivity.
- Build understanding at all levels of the organisation about high-quality relationships at work. Encourage leaders to establish bonds with employees that will enrich them both. It may also be helpful to have new-hires make connections right from the start, during the on-boarding process. Such opportunities exist with team lunches or assigning a “work buddy” to show the new employee ropes. These early opportunities for social engagement help new hires make connections sooner.
- Make it an organisation-wide strategic priority to strengthen social connections. This doesn’t mean resuming in-person interactions over remote interaction. You could even consider further automating tasks to free up more time for teams to focus on employee connections. This could be enhanced by creating regular company-wide digital clubs and activities that are fun. An example could be book clubs, escape rooms or even an online office quiz competition.
- 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 programmes and activities that offer the opportunity to understand the importance of creating healthy work relationships.
- Create opportunities for employees to learn more about each other in small groups and one-on-one, including personal experiences and interests outside of work. This can be done by finding new ways to celebrate birthdays or to introduce a programme of getting to know more about each other’s cultures in a diverse workplace.