Loneliness at work is a topic that deserves more attention from managers and scholars, regardless of current pandemic level. Importantly, loneliness levels were at epidemic proportions even before the year 2020 hit. I am worried that not enough decision-makers are respecting this epidemic that has plagued us a lot longer than our current pandemic.
Loneliness refers to the subjective state of not having one’s interpersonal needs met. Loneliness is distinct from isolation, or being alone. One can be isolated but not lonely, or lonely but not isolated. Hence, although these concepts are closely related, they are distinct.
Loneliness is Not Just a Pandemic Thing
Even before the pandemic, Americans were facing an epidemic of loneliness. In one study of 10,000 Americans in 2018, 54 percent reported feeling lonely. (This figure rose to 61 percent in a follow-up 2019 survey during the pandemic.) Another national survey asked people how many people they had in their network with whom they discuss important matters. The mean number of confidants was 2.94 in 1985, but decreased to a paltry 2.08 in 2004. But even worse, the 2004 modal (i.e., most commonly reported number) response for confidants was zero! We do not seem to be going in the right direction, our higher “standard of living” notwithstanding. Simply stated, more and more people are feeling lonely, and this is only partially due to the pandemic.
Loneliness is hazardous to one’s health, so much so that it moves beyond affecting one emotionally. Rather, it also negatively affects us physically. One meta-analysis examined the effect of loneliness on mortality rates (i.e., death rates). Loneliness had the equivalent effect as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and was two times as impactful as obesity.
One classic and compelling study evidenced the role of social connection on physical health. In 1978, Dr. Robert Nerem examined the effects of feeding rabbits a high-fat diet. Despite all rabbits eating the same food, one group of rabbits remarkably had 60% fewer fat deposits in their arteries. Why? The researcher in charge of these rabbits spent extra time caring for the rabbits (e.g., talking and petting them). In contrast, the other researchers simply fed the rabbits. The good news from this finding is that there is a cure for loneliness—care and kindness. The bad news is that loneliness is harmful even to our physical health.
Work and Loneliness
How does loneliness relate to the work we do? Stated simply, loneliness impacts our work, and our workplace impacts our loneliness. On the one hand, loneliness negatively impacts outcomes such as job performance, organizational commitment, productivity, and leader work engagement. Relatedly, friendship groups outperform acquaintance groups on decision-making and effort tasks due to their increased group commitment and cooperation. This finding shows that loneliness also affects organizations at the team level. These studies imply that it is naïve and problematic to think that friendship is something irrelevant to the workplace (“Friends? What is this, high school?”).
On the other hand, organizations can assuage loneliness by helping employees feel like they belong. Organizational leaders are carriers of the company culture and set the tone for workplace interactions. Thus, leaders impact employee loneliness, whether directly or indirectly, whether explicitly or implicitly. There are some organizations who are doing a fantastic job at helping employees feel included. These organizations do such a good job that they have won Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For award.
Organizations Leading Out in Reducing Loneliness at Work
Consider Ultimate Software, the HR cloud software company who implemented Coffee Chats. This program pairs an office-based worker with a remote worker for a 30-minute biweekly chat over coffee. These discussions include formal topics related to company success and productivity and more informal chats involving family and personal stories. Ultimate Software makes sure to champion the program (furthering its valuing of belongingness) during company-wide meetings.
As another example, Workday offers a New Connections program. This program entails a day-long event where employees explore ways to bolster social connections, learn more about the Workday culture, and participate in a community project with other team members. Employees are eligible soon after hire.
These organizational efforts align with research showing that “mixers”—or social gatherings where organizers do little more than just bring people together—do a less effective job at bolstering social connections. Rather, more deliberate efforts that chiefly involve “doing things” (such as eating together) end up being more effective.
Curbing Loneliness at Work Curbs Company Costs
Perhaps it is intuitive for most managers that having employees effectively work together helps bolster cohesion. However, we shouldn’t stop there, because efforts toward cohesion also pay dividends via increased employee health. My sense is that this idea would be news to most leaders, and would encourage them to emphasize togetherness even more.
As one example, organizations expend hundreds of billions of dollars on employees poor in health. As a result, leaders are hyper-vigilant at learning how to reduce and control such costs. (I should know—I used to sit on a board where we repeatedly came up with solutions aimed at reducing such costs.) Yet despite all the conversations centered on smoking, obesity, and disease, the idea that organizations can lower health care costs by increasing social connection at work has remained elusive. I would expect that if decision-makers knew this fact, they would place more efforts on social connection when they sought to lower healthcare costs.
As another example, some managers talk about how much money they will save by permanently maintaining remote work post pandemic. Yet I wonder how much money will actually be saved in the long-run. This move is likely to increase loneliness and its associated costs, thereby counteracting cost savings.
You Can’t Do It Alone
As an employee, the reality is that your social opportunities are at the mercy of your organization. This is because meeting social needs and curbing loneliness fundamentally require other people. Sure, you can put forth your independent efforts to foster friendships. But if your boss or coworker is figuratively frowning upon you reaching out to others, your efforts won’t go very far. If your social needs are not being met by your current organization, you should consider whether there is another workplace where you can find a sense of belonging that you deserve (and need). Alternatively, you might participate more in family events, clubs, groups, your church, etc. However, we spend so much of our waking hours at work. It therefore seems non-negotiable to find a workplace that supports your needs.
My hope is that employees and leaders realize the extent to which workplace loneliness negatively impacts employee performance and health. At the same time, I hope that these people realize the potential upside of fostering more social connection. I have worked in organizations that have met my interpersonal needs, and it was fantastic! It has been in these organizations where I have done my best work and been the happiest. I think that most of us would say the same thing.
Dr. Trevor Watkins
Assistant Professor of Management & Foust Professor of Business