Tips for dealing with workplace loneliness
It's Monday, and you wake up with a sense of dread. You notice creeping nausea and thoughts on a loop about the day ahead. You find going into the office tough, not because of what you have to do that day, but because you feel lonely at work. Sadly, this kind of experience is prevalent in British workplaces. A recent survey of workers found that 1 in 5 people felt lonely at work (Mental Health UK, 2022). That means for every five people you know at work; it is likely that one of those people feels or has felt lonely in the workplace.
What is loneliness?
Loneliness can be defined as the perceived discrepancy between actual and desired social relationships with others (Lam et al, 2021). So, loneliness can be thought of as the experience of unwanted disconnectedness (Best et al, 2021). Wanting and needing meaningful, socially caring connections with others is normal and natural and, from an evolutionary perspective, essential to our very survival as a species.
We likely have all experienced moments or times when we felt lonely, and we can experience loneliness in different ways. For some, fleeting loneliness may not be that bothersome; for others who feel lonely most or all of the time, it can cause significant distress and, therefore, negatively impact their mental health.
Loneliness and mental health
Research has shown that more loneliness is associated with lower perceived happiness and social connectedness (Best et al, 2021). Thus, not surprisingly, loneliness has been found to lead to a greater risk of depression, low self-esteem, sleep problems and stress (for a review, see The Loneliness Strategy, 2018). Over a quarter (23%) British workers recently surveyed reported that loneliness at work had affected their mental health (Mental Health UK, 2022).
How loneliness impacts working life
Current estimates of how much a lonely workforce costs UK employers is £2.5 billion every year (Employers and Loneliness, 2021). This astounding cost is linked to several factors, including increased staff turnover, lower staff well-being and productivity, and sickness absence (Co-Op and New Economics Foundation, 2017).
What to do if you are feeling lonely at work
Moving around the office and getting up from your desk at regular intervals enhances the opportunity for micro-moments of connection with others. Whether it's bumping into someone whilst making a coffee or a chance to ask how someone is at the photocopier, these moments can help build connections with your co-workers over time.
In this high tech-instant messaging world we live and work in, we have become accustomed to communicating with our colleagues via our technology. But this does represent an obstacle to real-life moments of connection with others. So seek opportunities for an in-person interaction instead of messaging or emailing the next time you need to communicate something to a colleague.
If you experience social anxiety and tend to avoid social situations, it will be challenging to purposefully seek out moments of connection. One way to manage this might be to adopt an attitude of being genuinely curious about your co-workers. Ask questions about them, their lives, what they like/don't like, what projects they are working on, etc. This will help take the pressure off you a little and helps to get a conversation going.
Loneliness can carry a lot of stigma; even in 2022, so many people will find it difficult to admit they are experiencing loneliness, especially in a busy, vibrant office environment where it seems like everyone else chats away to each other. But if others don't know you are struggling, they can't help. So if you feel comfortable, try raising it with your manager or team member you trust or think you might be able to trust.
If you manage others, it is crucial to create a space for employees to say difficult things. For example, going beyond the stock answer of "fine" after "how are you?". How is this person finding being in the office? What is the quality of the relationships with their peers? Do they ever feel lonely at work? Can you as a manager organise opportunities for workers to connect on a more human level? For example, a dedicated wellbeing discussion or non-work related discussion at the end of a regular meeting. Other ways to increase social connectedness at work might be setting up buddy or mentoring schemes to allow for more 'relaxed' interactions between staff.
Sometimes simple changes to the physical environment you are in at work can make a big difference in enabling opportunities for connection with colleagues. How are you seated in relation to others in the office? Are there any changes you could make?
Consider what your organisation is doing to tackle loneliness at work, and, more broadly, support mental wellbeing at work. Are there any staff networking events you could go to, or team building days? Or perhaps less formal events like coffee mornings or activities at lunchtime like yoga or mindfulness? For those who work from home – are there any networking events that take place online or does your workplace have any schemes for bringing home workers together to network or get to know one another?
Perhaps, if your workplace has nothing like that, can you start something yourself? For example, a monthly team lunch (whether in person or online) or drinks after work occasionally?
In Britain, we are experiencing a worrying trend of loneliness in our workplaces. If you are one of the 1 in 5, know that you are not alone, and there are things you can do to help improve your sense of loneliness at work. But organisations also have a responsibility to actively promote meaningful connections across their workforce. Doing so will enhance the employees' experience of work, which increases well-being at work, leading to greater engagement and ultimately better productivity.
Please see here for a comprehensive list of organisations that can help support someone with loneliness.
To find out what the government is doing to tackle loneliness at work, see here.
A connected society: a strategy for tackling loneliness (2018). Policy Paper. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/a-connected-society-a-strategy-for-tackling-loneliness
Best, T., Herring, L., Clarke, C., Kirby, J. & Gilbert, P. (2021). The experience of loneliness: The role of fears of compassion and social safeness, Personality and Individual Differences, Vol 183, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2021.111161
Co-Op and New Economics Foundation (2017). The cost of loneliness to UK employers. https://neweconomics.org/2017/02/cost-loneliness-uk-employers
Employers and Loneliness (2021). Guidance. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/employers-and-loneliness/employers-and-loneliness#loneliness-and-employment--what-we-know
Lam, J. A., Murray, E. R., Yu, K. E., Ramsey, M., Nguyen, T. T., Mishra, J., Martis, B., Thomas, M. L., & Lee, E. E. (2021). Neurobiology of loneliness: a systematic review. Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, 46(11), 1873–1887. of https://www.nature.com/articles/s41386-021-01058-7
Loneliness and our mental health at work. Mental Health UK. 2022. https://mentalhealth-uk.org/help-and-information/loneliness-and-mental-health-at-work/