Workplace loneliness is a growing epidemic. Loneliness at work is a real problem and it’s affecting businesses, relationships and wellbeing. Research has revealed that loneliness has the same health risks as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In spite of the world being connected with the advent of technology and social media, people are lonelier and feel isolated than ever before.
What is Loneliness and Why Does It Occur?
Loneliness “consists of a person’s feelings about the adequacy and quality of his or her relationships in particular situations.” All humans desire to have an emotional connection and attachment with those around them. And when they lack that emotional support, they feel lonely.
London-based Campaign To End Loneliness explains that this condition occurs when the quantity and quality of social relationships we have doesn’t match with what we want.
The reason for workplace loneliness can be explained in the context of emotional and social loneliness. Emotional loneliness refers to when people feel the absence of someone to feel close to and connect to. Social loneliness occurs as a result of lack of social relationships, i.e friendships, romantic relationships with whom they can share their interests with. The combination of both these conditions in the workplace gives rise to feelings of loneliness and emptiness.
The Impact Of Workplace Loneliness
The world suffers from loneliness. In UK, over 9 million people (more than the population of London) suffer from loneliness. In Japan, almost 30,000 people die of loneliness every year.
This loneliness has an adverse effect on our health. In India, a study by WHO in 2015 found that 4.5% of Indians suffered from depression.
Affects Interpersonal Relationships
Loneliness in the workplace triggers emotional withdrawal. When people feel lonely, they start withdrawing themselves from social events. They stop communicating and interacting with their peers. They stop participating in activities that involve working in groups. As a result, other employees also stop including them in activities and decision making processes. This affects relationships and can cause internal conflicts between peers.
Deteriorates Mental Health
Psychological research by NCBI has cited loneliness as one of the major reasons for causing mental illnesses. In India itself, 46% of employees suffer from some form of stress. These feelings of isolation can cause depression, anxiety and in some extreme cases even suicide. Loneliness often makes people feel disconnected or alienated from those around them. They feel nobody understands them or they are not likeable and nobody cares about them. Loneliness festers a lot of self-doubt and insecurity. As a result, they isolate themselves from others which causes negative thoughts and emotions.
Weakens Physical Health
When people feel they lack emotional connection with anyone or don’t have anyone, they turn 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 involving 1,81,000 adults found that loneliness increases the risk of coronary heart disease by 29%.
Reduces Employee Engagement
In the context of an organisation, workplace loneliness refers to feeling disengaged and disconnected from work and peers. Since employees feel they lack the desired connection with peers, they become emotionally detached with the organisation and its success. The lack of belonging reduces their commitment to the organisation. Employees rarely get involved with the organisation’s functions and important decision making processes. The overall result is reduced employee engagement.
Workplace loneliness over a long time can make employees even decide to leave the organisation. Since employees who feel lonely feel no attachment to their work and organisation, their motivation to work and perform is also very low. Their sense of belonging to the organisation is very low and they feel they have no purpose in the organisation. This can lead them to make the decision to leave your organisation.
Declines Job Performance
When employees feel lonely at work, nothing interests them.They lack the emotional connection and attachment with those around them which eventually translates to their work. They don’t feel motivated to work and derive no pleasure out of their work. In spite of being uninterested, employees might work for some time. But for a longer duration, it’ll cause burnout and eventually decline their performance and productivity.
7 Ways To Combat Workplace Loneliness
A survey by Totaljobs found that 63% of employees who are lonely feel their company doesn’t do anything to combat workplace loneliness. It was also found that loneliness causes employees to take an average of 5 sick days a year. The need for healthy workplaces is huge and here’s how you can help employees tackle loneliness day to day-
Start Before Day 1
Help new hires make connections from the beginning. New employees might feel intimidated to talk to their leaders and peers in the beginning. They might also feel uncomfortable in their new work environment. Introducing them to the company’s work culture before onboarding can help to make them comfortable and accommodate with their surrounding.
Team Building Projects
Apart from building the spirit of teamwork and collaboration, team building projects curb loneliness. Working in groups enables employees to interact and connect with each other. They get to know each more outside their work too. Team building activities can also gives employees the opportunity to make friends at work.
It is important to build connections in the workplace. Assigning work buddies or mentors does a lot more than just help employees to learn the ropes. Mentors are someone an employee can always count on. Good mentors are like the safe haven that an employee can reach out to when they need any guidance related to both work and non-work issues.
Team lunches are probably the best way to combat workplace loneliness. It’s a great way for employees who haven’t worked together to interact and bond. Since employees are not in a workplace setting, they might feel at ease and communicate freely with their peers and leaders. And shared food interests and feasting on free food will is sure to spark conversations among your employees.
Employees rarely talk about loneliness. The primary reason for this is their lack of trust in their colleagues and HR managers. The above mentioned research by Totaljobs found that 13% of employees don’t confide in anyone because they feel it would harm their career. They fear being embarrassed and being considered weak and therefore, be bullied.
Encourage employees to talk. Tell them that your office is a safe space where they can come and share their troubles. Listening is extremely powerful and you just need to show them that you genuinely care and your “doors will always be open” for them.
Robust Internal Communication
The prime reason for the increasing rates of workplace loneliness is the rise of interaction between employees through virtual platforms. Employees can now connect with each other with just a click on the mouse but there’s no real interaction between them. Nobody “talks and listens” anymore. Therefore, it’s important that you encourage employees to not just limit their conversations to texts and liking each other’s pictures. You can do this by asking them to not bring their phones to meetings or actually going to each other’s desks and ask how they’re doing, etc.
Inclusion In Important Decisions
Inability to contribute to the organisation can also lead to loneliness. When employees feel that their presence is making no difference to the organisation and they’ve no purpose, they might feel secluded and left out. To combat this, you can involve them in decision making processes that involve coming up with new ideas, working in teams. Bottom line is that you listen to their opinions and make them feel a part of the organisation.