Part 1: Alone vs. Lonely – Stigma, Misconceptions and Warning Signs
- Workplace loneliness predates the pandemic but is on the ascent and its significant negative impact on work culture has become increasingly apparent.
- Despite widespread online connectivity, reports indicate heightened loneliness among Gen-Z, partially attributed to the pandemic’s disruption of crucial social connections during some of the most formative stages of their careers.
- Identifying signs that suggest a colleague might be experiencing loneliness is crucial, but initiating contact with a potentially lonely coworker demands sensitivity and a comprehensive understanding of their daily work habits.
Originally published in Allwork.space .
Despite abundant scientific evidence highlighting the detrimental impact of loneliness on health, research on loneliness in the workplace remains scant. In the U.K., where employees collectively invest around one billion hours per week in work-related activities, studies predominantly focus on loneliness outside the workplace. This lack of focus could be due to the prevailing stigma attached to loneliness and the misconception that a busy workload and being surrounded by colleagues can alleviate the impact of being lonely at work. It’s an issue that’s dangerous to ignore.
What causes loneliness at work?
Loneliness arises when social connections fail to meet individual needs. In the workplace, loneliness is the experience of being disconnected from others, which may be attributed to a lack of engagement in collaborative projects, a poor sense of group belonging, or simply feeling invisible at work. Loneliness is thus the antithesis of inclusion and belonging.
Loneliness at work predates the pandemic, but a spotlight was shone on its prevalence when we were all deprived of crucial face-to-face contact. In the aftermath of the pandemic, there have also been economic strains — such as the soaring cost of living coupled with ongoing health challenges that have further exacerbated rising levels of loneliness. Understanding the origins of workplace loneliness, in particular, is crucial to addressing this crisis overall.
It’s important to remember that loneliness is the absence of meaningful human connection rather than simply being alone. It transcends personality types, affecting both introverts and extroverts alike. The quality of our interactions at work has the most profound impact on our sense of loneliness, and merely being surrounded by coworkers does not guarantee immunity from this scourge.
Loneliness in the workplace emerges through various avenues, for instance:
- External factors like recent bereavement can carry loneliness into the workplace.
- Work culture intricacies — stressful tasks, toxic workplace dynamics, lack of autonomy, or unaddressed bullying — can trigger or intensify feelings of isolation.
- Work structure and arrangements — long hours, night shifts, remote work setups, and lengthy commutes — can limit the time and energy available for socializing outside of work, contributing to workplace loneliness.
Are we really in the grip of a loneliness epidemic?
In May this year, the U.S. Surgeon General sounded the alarm about what his office categorizes as an epidemic of loneliness and isolation. This trend extends into the workplace, where reports of loneliness have surged. Workplace loneliness is nothing new; it was on the rise well before the pandemic because of evolving work practices — such as an increased reliance on AI-driven solutions (over human interaction) and an increased use of digital communication platforms.
The American Time Use Survey (ATUS) has emphasized the pandemic’s role in exacerbating pre-existing levels of loneliness. According to the ATUS findings, the average American spends approximately 6 hours daily with friends or family. Nevertheless, social interaction needs vary for each individual. Loneliness can affect anyone and is a vulnerability we all share. Being lonely can trigger heightened anger, increased anxiety, and diminished self-esteem. It is not a lifestyle choice or personal preference (unlike solitude). While some find joy in solitary moments, nobody thrives when consumed by loneliness.
Who is most affected by loneliness at work?
The loneliness epidemic affects various demographics in the U.K. workforce. Research from April this year revealed that 20% of U.K. workers experience loneliness during a typical workday. Inequalities within the labor market exacerbate this issue, particularly impacting those on low incomes, women, younger workers, individuals from ethnic minorities (or historically disadvantaged backgrounds), the disabled, and the chronically ill.
Larger organizations also see a higher prevalence of loneliness. Employers are not immune from loneliness either — 32% of senior managers reported frequently experiencing loneliness, potentially due to the complexities of the employer-employee relationship.
Since 2003, face-to-face social interaction has decreased across all age groups — with young people revealed to have fewer close friendships today (compared to previous generations). Focusing on the youngest members of the workforce (particularly Gen Z) is crucial because of their significant influence on shaping the future of work.
During the pandemic, Allwork.Space highlighted that 80% of Gen Z felt lonely — compared to Millennials (71%) and Baby Boomers (50%). Despite starting their careers amid the pandemic, Gen Z continues to grapple with heightened loneliness, with 58% reporting feeling lonely most of the time, especially those with less than five years of work experience.
Research conducted by the McKinsey Health Institute indicates that a segment of Gen Z may have had minimal in-person office experiences, leading to fewer work friendships since the pandemic (68%) and heightened concerns (81%) about long-term remote work and its link to loneliness. Despite employers advocating for a return to offices, Gen Z shows a higher inclination (27% versus 49% of Millennials) to return, potentially due to the detrimental implications of chronic loneliness, including stress, mental health issues, depression, and addiction.
What are the Warning Signs of Loneliness in the Workplace?
Recognizing loneliness in a colleague can be challenging. Look out for subtle changes in behavior, such as attitude shifts towards tasks, alterations in routine, and changes in eating habits or appearance. Additional signs of loneliness include avoiding meetings or events, turning off the camera in Zoom sessions, or (paradoxically) someone suddenly behaving more extroverted. Some of the barriers to discussing loneliness at work include time constraints, lack of trust in management, and a culture that avoids mental health conversations.
Cultivating a workplace culture that fosters connection and community is essential in combating loneliness, as is acknowledging that nobody is immune, even in a bustling office.