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. Despite the world being connected with the advent of technology and social media, people are lonelier and 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 don't match 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 due to a lack of social relationships, i.e., friendships, romantic relationships with whom they can share their interests. 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 the 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 harms 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 distupts the healthy relationships between peers and can cause internal conflicts.
Also Read: The Guide To Conflict Resolution In The Workplace
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 likable, 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 an emotional connection with anyone or don't have anyone, they turn to things 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 organization, 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 from the organization and its success. The lack of belonging reduces their commitment to the organization. Employees rarely get involved with the organization's functions and important decision-making processes. The overall result is reduced employee engagement.
Learn more: What is Employee Engagement?
Workplace loneliness over a long time can make employees even decide to leave the organization. Since employees who feel lonely feel no attachment to their work and organization, their motivation to work and perform is also very low. Their sense of belonging to the organization is very low, and they feel they have no purpose in the organization. This can lead them to decide to leave your organization.
Related: The 20 Best Employee Retention Strategies
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. Despite being uninterested, employees might work for some time. But for a longer duration, it’ll cause burnout and eventually decline their performance and productivity.
Affects Upskilling Efforts
Loneliness has harmful effects on not only physical and emotional but cognitive wellbeing as well.
Meanwhile, a 2019 study of more than 11,000 people found that men who reported higher-than-average social isolation and women who reported increasing social isolation both experienced an above-average decline in memory function within two years of being surveyed.
Thus, loneliness and isolation can inadvertently affect an employee's outcome despite previously being a top performer. Upskilling will be less effective when people feel stressed and separate from the rest of their work peers. A lonely person will be more likely to find themselves unable to give their best performance- even after getting sufficient training and development.
7 Ways To Combat Workplace Loneliness
A survey by Totaljobs found that 63% of lonely employees 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 enormous, and here's how you can help employees tackle loneliness day today
1. 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.
2.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. They get to know each other more outside their work too. Team building activities can also give employees the opportunity to make friends at work.
Related: 10 Best Virtual Team Building Activities for Remote Employees
3. Buddy Culture
It is important to build connections in the workplace. Assigning work buddies or mentors does a lot more than help employees learn the ropes. Mentors are someone an employee can always count on. Good mentors are like the haven that an employee can reach out to when they need any guidance related to work and non-work issues.
4. Team Lunches
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.
5. Encourage Talking
Employees rarely talk about loneliness. The primary reason for this is their lack of trust in their colleagues and HR managers. The research as mentioned above 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 compelling, and you need to show them that you genuinely care, and your “doors will always be open” for them.
6. 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 just a click on the mouse, but there's no real interaction between them. Nobody ** "talks and listens"** anymore. Therefore, you must encourage employees to limit their conversations to texts and liking each other's pictures. You can do this by asking them not to bring their phones to meetings or actually going to each other's desks and ask how they're doing, etc.
Related: Key Tips To Improve Workplace Communication
7. Inclusion In Important Decisions
The inability to contribute to the organization can also lead to loneliness. When employees feel that their presence is making no difference to the organization 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. The bottom line is that you listen to their opinions and make them feel a part of the organization.
Related: 11 Incredibly Powerful Ways To Nurture Inclusion At The Workplace
8. Prioritize Learning And Training
The feeling of inadequateness and isolation can also stem from not able to contribute enough to the team. Also, as most work peers who share similar responsibilities prefer to band together, a person who lacks the said skills might find themselves at every group's threshold. Thus, providing the right training and development opportunities is an underrated but powerful way of overcoming a worker's loneliness.
Firstly, it'll enable workers to acquire the right talents, strategies, and character to feel confident in themselves and their abilities. Not only will it aid in their career development, but it will promote their personal growth as well.
Secondly, it will ensure the people who often feel left out can find peers who share the same interests. It will provide a means for them to branch out of their comfort zones, learn from others, connect, and form meaningful relationships.