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If you’ve been feeling lonely lately, you’re not alone: An estimated one-third of people in industrialized countries are lonely. In the United States, it’s so widespread that it was declared a public health crisis this year, which has communities, health agencies, and workplaces wondering how to deal with loneliness.
In the workplace, lonely employees are three times more likely to underperform, seven times more likely to disengage, five times more likely to miss work due to distress or illness, and twice as likely to consider quitting. Because the average person will spend one-third of their life at work, companies are in a unique position to help address the loneliness epidemic. When organizations prioritize connection, support, and emotional well-being, they create healthy workplace cultures that nurture and empower their most valuable asset—their employees.
Signs of loneliness can be tough to spot because some are indicators of other issues as well. For example, tiredness and overworking are often surprising symptoms of loneliness.
Signs of loneliness at work include:
When employees aren’t doing their best work, learning new things, or they’re chronically late or disengaged, it can signal that they’re feeling disconnected. “If we’re not motivated to go above and beyond, learn, or better ourselves, oftentimes it’s because we’re lonely at work,” said Steven Van Cohen, a global leadership consultant and author of “Connectable: How Leaders Can Move Teams From Isolated to All.” He notes that, “If we’re not interested in doing good work for ourselves, our boss, or the company, we may lack a sense of belonging that makes us feel accountable for work outcomes.”
On the other hand, sometimes people attempt to deal with loneliness by working excessively. “For employers, this can be challenging because you don’t want to demotivate hard workers, but overworking is a clue to investigate what’s driving it,” said Van Cohen. Ultimately, overworking can lead to poor performance and burnout, which isn’t good for the employee or the employer. Lyra Health’s 2023 State of Workforce Mental Health survey found that burnout and work-related stress are the second most common factors affecting employee mental health over the past year, after financial stress.
Loneliness can cause us to disconnect from other people. If we’re feeling lonely and unhappy with our relationships we may avoid situations we think will cause more pain or disappointment and choose to distance ourselves from people. At work, we may turn our cameras off during meetings or not participate in group discussions.
Research finds that people who experience social isolation are more tired, suggesting low energy may be a response to a lack of social connection. Whereas social isolation can make us tired and less energetic, connecting with others often boosts our mood and motivation, both of which help us regulate emotions.
Additional research suggests that work stress is linked to a lack of interpersonal relationships with co-workers. Healthy relationships help protect us against anxiety and stress. When we don’t have a support system, we may feel stressed by a situation that usually wouldn’t bother us.
Physical illness is another potential symptom of loneliness. Social isolation and chronic loneliness can alter our immune system, making us more susceptible to illness. At work, this might look like constantly having colds or taking an unusual number of sick days.
Loneliness is not the absence of people, it’s the absence of connection. We can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely. It takes more than the presence of others to feel connected. “Many work environments these days lack real connections between people, and it’s causing a whole bunch of disconnection and loneliness, and that’s a big problem,” said Van Cohen. There are several possible causes of social isolation, including:
Technology and social media have an impact on social isolation and loneliness. “We’ve traded ‘high-touch communication’ for ‘high-tech communication,’” said Van Cohen. “There’s been an incredible dependency shift. It wasn’t that long ago that if we had a question, we’d ask a boss, colleague, or peer for the answer. Now, all of our answers are curated in a blank search box.” We’re less likely to depend on each other for solutions, and that’s created a shift in how we interact, which may translate into less meaningful connections at work.
Many of us are constantly on-the-go and busier than ever. This culture of busyness has removed opportunities to slow down and create space for meaningful interactions with people.
Our culture encourages swift digital transactions over interpersonal interactions such as instant messaging and texting instead of calling or connecting in person.
“An always-on work culture means we work longer hours and have less time for communal relationships,” said Van Cohen. Constant connectivity through smartphones and the ability to work remotely have made it easier for work to bleed into leisure time, leading to an expectation to be reachable at all times. Financial stability and fear of job loss can drive us to prioritize work above our personal lives.
Feeling like work is meaningless can also fuel symptoms of loneliness. “If we don’t feel important, significant, needed, or appreciated, it’s going to cause us to disconnect from others, which means we experience loneliness,” said Van Cohen.
Loneliness comes with a lot of stigma. “It’s such a charged word, which is absurd, because loneliness is just a clue from our brain to say, ‘Hey, you need to forge more connections,’” said Van Cohen. “And yet it’s viewed as an embarrassing emotion that many people hide really deep down inside.” These feelings of shame can block people from learning how to deal with loneliness.
In many work environments, loneliness and mental health issues are stigmatized, which can make people feel uncomfortable asking for support. “If we must bring a work-safe version to our job, people don’t see the real person or understand what we’re going through,” said Van Cohen. “They’re seeing the avatar we bring to the office, and that can feel lonely.”
“If loneliness had a warning label, it would read, ‘May cause destructive sleep, abnormal immune response, depression, anxiety, high stress levels, early cognitive decline, alcoholism, cardiovascular disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, suicide, and early death,’” said Van Cohen. Chronic loneliness can even be lethal—causing our body to stay in a fight-or-flight response. This releases stress hormones, which can contribute to physical and mental health conditions. “The U.S. Surgeon General says the mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. That’s how bad loneliness is for us,” said Van Cohen. “We also know that suicide is tied closely to loneliness.” Research shows how loneliness is damaging our health:
A large study found that loneliness and social isolation increase the risk of premature death by illnesses like cancer and cardiovascular disease.
A 20-year study found that loneliness increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Some research suggests lonely older adults are three times more likely to develop dementia than those who don’t feel lonely.
Chronic loneliness and social isolation can increase cognitive issues like memory, concentration, and attention as we age.
Loneliness is different for each person because it’s based, in part, on our “connection quota.” Some people need to connect with others occasionally to fill their quota while others require much more interpersonal interaction. When our desired level of connection isn’t met, we feel lonely.
Connection, or a sense of belonging, is the antidote to loneliness. When you’re feeling lonely, it’s a sign that you need to seek out opportunities for connection. Here are a few tips for how to deal with loneliness:
The first step to managing loneliness is acknowledging what’s happening. Don’t try to push it away and pretend like you’re not feeling the way you’re feeling; doing so may actually increase your feelings of isolation, frustration, and invalidation. Sometimes the more we try to ignore emotions, the bigger they get. Gently acknowledge, “I’m feeling lonely. That’s OK, and I’ll honor the signal this emotion is sending me by doing something about it.”
It’s tempting to withdraw more when we’re dealing with loneliness, but pushing yourself out of your comfort zone can chip away at disconnection. Ask a coworker to coffee or have lunch over Zoom if you work remotely. Starting small is perfectly fine—you don’t have to change who you are and become a social butterfly overnight.
Involve co-workers in your breaks. Take a quick walk around the building together, grab a snack, or keep a running board game until you finish it over several breaks. If you work remotely and have the option to go onsite, try spending more time in the office. If you live in the same city as other remote co-workers, meet up at a coffee shop to work.
Some workplaces have fitness clubs, volunteer days, afterwork happy hours, book clubs, or groups for shared interests like chess and sports. Ask your HR department for information on upcoming social opportunities or consider starting an initiative yourself.
Identify the people who benefit from your work. If you understand the contributions you’re making, you may feel less lonely at work. You could also ask your boss or coworkers for feedback on a recent project or initiative to see how the work you’re producing impacts them and their work.
Filling your connection quota outside of work is another important way to deal with loneliness. For example, you could try volunteering, strengthening existing connections, getting a pet, or participating in hobbies that involve others.
Eight out of ten employees say they’ve experienced loneliness at work. “Connection comes in all kinds of shapes, especially at work, because we have connection to ourselves, connection to our team, connection to the work culture, connection to our supervisor, connection to how work makes us feel about ourselves, and connection to the purpose of the team or the organization,” said Van Cohen.
Here are a few ways employers can help their people learn how to deal with loneliness.
First, we have to understand the impact of loneliness and take it seriously. Look inward to gain perspective. Identify how you’ve dealt with loneliness so you can relate to your employees. Then notice who on the team may be showing signs of loneliness. “For managers and leaders, the best way to spot signs of loneliness is to take stock of your team,” said Van Cohen. “It’s up to all of us to start really paying attention to the people around us because while loneliness might be elusive, people are always giving us little clues that they might be feeling lonely. It’s up to us to make the decision to be intentional about looking for it.”
Be generous with your time and provide mental health resources that teach employees how to deal with loneliness. According to our State of Workforce Mental Health report, 28 percent of managers say they don’t have adequate training and resources to support their team’s mental health. “The word ‘invest’ is used very intentionally because connections don’t just form themselves, they take work and continual effort,” said Van Cohen. “It’s like charging your phone. You don’t plug your phone in once and it’s charged forever. You plug it in every day because the battery depletes. Same with connection. We have to be really intentional about making an investment in it.”
Investing in connection includes giving staff your time. “Being interruptible means we spend less time on tasks and more time on people,” said Van Cohen. “One of the ways we do this is by sending interruptibility signals to people around us.” Put down your phone when you’re in a meeting. Take off noise-canceling headphones. Close your laptop when someone comes into your office and give them your undivided attention. “Letting people know that you’re interruptible, that they’re more important than whatever task you’re doing at the moment, means you’re intentional about showing up for those who need you. Never wavering off task is for robots. We need to be beautifully human.”
There’s a difference between just sharing an opinion and feeling understood. When a manager speaks more than 80 percent of the time, their teams are less successful than those who take turns speaking. “As a leader, when you go into a room and say, ‘Here’s the problem; here’s what I think; but I want to hear what you have to say,’ it’s too late,” said Van Cohen. “You’ve already influenced the group. Speaking last is letting others share first, making them the center of attention, hearing their thoughts, their ideas, their queries, their frustrations, their obstacles without your influence at all.” This way, people feel validated for their contributions.
Focus on actions that foster relationships. The clearer people are on work responsibilities, resources, and the people they can go to for advice, the more they’ll feel supported and connected. “When we’re wandering, when we’re going somewhere without a map, we don’t know where to go, we don’t know who to talk to, we don’t know what to do. That creates a lot of loneliness,” said Van Cohen. “When people face a problem with a lot of unknowns they often pull back, isolating themselves, rather than seeking the advice they need. People get scared and retreat.” This can lead to social isolation and poor work performance.
Communication errors cost companies dearly in productivity and dollars. To get clarity, assume that you’re not on the same page. “Too often we assume we’re on the same page. We give someone a directive, we let them know what to do, and then we ask the single worst question at work, which is something along the lines of, ‘Do you understand?’ or ‘Do you have questions?’ And I’d guess 95 percent of the time when we ask that closed question the response is, ‘Nope, I’m good. I got it,’” said Van Cohen. Ask open-ended questions like, “What’s your game plan?” Spending that extra one to three minutes can ensure that you’re in sync.
Often we listen to win or fix. “Most of us do this on a regular basis—paying just enough attention so we can give advice,” said Van Cohen. “Listening to unlock is listening with a curious ear to really understand a person’s view or perspective and not judging or giving advice, just allowing them to feel fully heard.”
An important way to get someone who’s feeling removed to feel connected is reinforcing significance. “When we feel desired, appreciated, wanted, and needed, it creates a whole new level of connection with ourselves and with others,” said Van Cohen. This can come in the form of acknowledging hard work, reminding employees how their contributions tie into organizational values and success, and recognition programs for milestones and exceptional work.
If you sense that someone’s overworking, provide a clear expectation of how much work to do and when, like working regular work hours, and taking breaks and PTO. “Demonstrate the appropriate level of work by doing those behaviors yourself,” said Van Cohen. “If you’re a leader, don’t let them see you overworking so they don’t get the sense that, ‘I must do what my boss does.’” Your example can help set the tone for the group. You should also give people the right tools so they aren’t overworking because they don’t have the resources they need to do their job effectively.
Align people with their strengths and passions so they’re inspired to do their best work. “If I’m doing something I really love, and I’m set up for success, that allows me to get my work done faster because I’m in a state of flow and I’m able to quickly get things done,” said Van Cohen.
It’s critical for both employees and company leaders to learn how to deal with loneliness because it negatively impacts well-being, team dynamics, and overall productivity. By understanding and addressing how to deal with loneliness at work, you can create a supportive and inclusive environment that promotes employee engagement and organizational success.
Get more insights from Steven Van Cohen about loneliness at work by watching Lyra’s webinar.