How to overcome loneliness in the workplace

Tuesday, 6th June 2023

Written by Maria Mander – Mander Wellbeing & Co-Chair of the Wellbeing Champions Committee

What is loneliness?

Loneliness is a state of being alone and the absence of connection, which can be experienced in the workplace, particularly working remotely or hybrid. It is a feeling we have when our need for social contact and relationships isn’t met. Some people may feel content and quite peaceful without much contact with other people, whilst others might find being on their own a lonely experience. Loneliness can leave us questioning where we belong in life and our value to others. In a world where we are digitally connected, we can feel disconnected from people and the world around us. Although loneliness isn’t a mental health problem, having a mental health problem can increase feelings of loneliness, for example, avoiding social events, finding it hard to try new things and feeling overwhelmed in busy public places. A study published by The BMJ shows that social isolation and loneliness can lead to higher risks of a variety of physical and mental health conditions, such as sleep problems, low self-esteem, high blood pressure, anxiety and depression.

There are 3 different types of loneliness:

Emotional loneliness – a feeling that you lack relationships or attachments (partner, sibling, friend, colleague) and can be felt when you need to talk to someone about what is going on in your life, but there is no one available.
Social loneliness – the lack of a wider social network and when you don’t feel a sense of belonging to a group beyond yourself.
Existential loneliness – is described as a universal aspect of the human condition which expresses the separateness of the person from others. This can be helpful in terms of self-exploration and is an inevitable part of the human experience.

Causes of loneliness

Loneliness has many different causes. Certain life events or experiences can make you feel lonely, for example, going through a relationship break-up, a bereavement, having financial problems, moving to a different area, experiencing mental health problems or an illness. Loneliness can be felt at certain times of the year too, for example, around holidays like Christmas, Ramadan or Valentine’s Day. Within the workplace, people can experience loneliness and feel isolated working remotely or hybrid, experiencing changes within a team or changing jobs. We all want to feel connected to our team and colleagues, working together with a shared sense of purpose. This can alleviate the impact of loneliness on your mental wellbeing.

Recognising the signs

Loneliness is a subjective experience, making it hard to identify at times. Everyone’s experience will be different. The signs of loneliness may be subtle, but paying close attention is crucial to building strongly connected and resilient teams. Signs of loneliness include:

• Decrease in quality of work, mistakes or missed deadlines are indicators of potential loneliness.
• Disconnecting from work. Disengagement during meetings, keeping the camera off and lack of eye contact, not wanting to be seen. Feelings of insecurity are associated with loneliness.
• Only talking about work and unwilling to talk about non-work related items, can be a sign of not developing connections.
• Lack of curiosity in others, short responses during conversations, avoiding joining any work gatherings and limited interactions with colleagues.
• Taking on too much work to avoid professional and personal social interactions, leading to an imbalance in social relationships.
• A negative attitude and passive approach work.
• A cluttered desk/workspace can be an indication of an indifference to establishing connections with colleagues.

Creating a supportive and inclusive working environment

Loneliness can feel overwhelming, especially for people who experience social anxiety or other disabilities. People may hide their feelings of loneliness due to fear, embarrassment and they don’t want to appear weak. This may prevent employees from speaking up and seeking support. Managers are key to recognising when members of the team are disconnected or feeling left out by the rest of the team. Managers play an important part in creating an inclusive and psychologically safe environment where employees can bring their whole self to work. Employees need to feel that that they can have an open conversation and will be supported. Everyone within an organisation wants to feel seen, valued and respected.
Managers must have regular one to one meetings with their team members and take the time to get to know and understand each individual. Any unacceptable behaviour within the workplace must be addressed. Managers must promote positive working relationships ensuring good lines of communication. Within your organisation, normalise mental health conversations about loneliness and raise awareness via your annual health awareness programme. Promote your Mental Health First Aiders and ensure signposting is clear and accessible for internal/external support e.g. EAP provider.

Facilitating connection at work

The workplace can be a supportive environment for creating meaningful relationships. Connection is vital to support our mental health and as humans we have a natural need to feel connected with others as social beings. There are several ways to create opportunities and foster connections with colleagues within the workplace:
• Buddy system – assign new employees a workplace buddy for emotional and practical support. This also improves employee satisfaction, fostering friendships amongst colleagues and helps new employees to grow their network of people too.
• Weekly huddle – to ensure employees working remotely or hybrid feels connected to their team and wider colleagues, introduce a weekly online 30 minute huddle. It is an opportunity to go over top priorities to be accomplished that week and what needs to be focused on. Huddles are a great way to boost morale, motivation, improve communication and build better interpersonal relationships.
• Team work – provide opportunities for collaboration and team work so that people can effectively work together and find commonality. Organise regular team meetings and quarterly team building exercises to maintain positive workplace relationships. Encourage participation in meetings by starting with an icebreaker or a fun exercise. Employees who feel their voice is heard will be more empowered and will produce their best work too. Acknowledge that everyone’s view is important to create an open and safe space for employees to participate and communicate during meetings.
• Fostering colleague connection – create places where employees who share an interest or concern can connect. This could be group chats setup on channels such as MS Teams or Slack. Does the design of your office foster connection? Is there a communal space for people to gather? For employees working remotely, setup virtual social hangouts e.g. book club. Promote social events across multiple channels to ensure comms reaches all employees. Make sure employees know how to access your ERG (Employee Resource Group) or Social Committee and encourage them to get involved.
• Purpose – all employees want to have a sense of belonging within an organisation. Having a shared sense of purpose as a team with goals to work towards is an opportunity to build meaning. Feeling connected to the meaning of work that employees are doing will combat loneliness and support their mental wellbeing.
• Work-life balance – lookout for anyone overworking. Encourage a work-life balance and the importance of taking a proper break during the working day. Do ensure employees are using their annual leave throughout the year to maintain their wellbeing, as well as doing something that they enjoy, plus spending quality time with their family & friends.

Loneliness is personal and everyone’s experience of it will be different. Therefore, no one size fits all in discovering the desired level of social connection and types of interaction to feel more engaged.