Why organisations can’t ignore loneliness

A brick building with two windows.

With workplace culture and relationships turned upside down due to the global pandemic, loneliness is an even more pressing and present reality for physically isolated employees and their employers than ever before.

Even before the pandemic and the rise of remote working, there were significant concerns about the effects of loneliness in the workplace here in Australia and around the world.

In 2018, the Australia Psychological Society collaborated with Swinburne University on a study of loneliness in Australia, to shine a light on the wellbeing of Australians and their experience of social isolation.

The report that was released was the most comprehensive report into loneliness in Australia at the time, revealing that 1 in 4 Australians feel lonely, 30% don’t feel part of a group of friends and many Australiana – especially younger Australians – report anxiety about socialising.

According to the 2019 Workplace Loneliness report, Australian workers experience loneliness at an alarming rate, with 37% of workers reporting feeling lonely at work yet only 9% of workers feel comfortable asking HR about workplace relationships.

In the same year, research in the UK found over half (53%) of British workers admitted to suffering from loneliness in the workplace. While in the US, a 2020 study found 61% of Americans classify as lonely.

With such alarming rates of the working population suffering from loneliness and its detrimental consequences on health, relationships, performance, and wellbeing well established, workplace loneliness is an issue organisations can’t afford to overlook.

In this article, we’ll discuss the meaning of loneliness and investigate the biggest impacts it has in the workplace. Then, we’ll explore the different ways organisations and leaders can take crucial action to safeguard against loneliness.

What is loneliness?

Drawing on Australian academic Dr Lindsay McMillan, and Clinical Psychologist and loneliness researcher Dr Michelle Lim’s, definitions of loneliness, loneliness, in summary, can be defined as being disconnected from others and seeing one’s relationships negatively. One can feel lonely in a crowd and yet be surrounded by others. This can be detrimental to our individual health and wellbeing.

As social animals, humans need meaningful and emotional connections with those around them. The workplace is no exception. If this innate need to connect and belong to a group is perceived to be unmet or lacking by the individual it makes sense they will experience feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Today loneliness is being described as a “major public health epidemic”, with significant negative impacts on our physical, emotional, cognitive, and psychological health. What we’re interested in understanding is how the loneliness epidemic is impacting workplaces and what possible solutions are there to counter and bring an end to workplace loneliness.

The biggest impacts of workplace loneliness

Research from around the world indicates various harmful consequences of loneliness to individuals and the organisations they work for. Here are the four biggest effects of loneliness in the workplace.

1. Diminished productivity

Numerous studies have shown the correlation between employee loneliness and lower productivity.

The 2019 Workplace Loneliness report by Australian HR think tank Reventure found that 38% of lonely workers made more mistakes, 40% felt less productive and they are less engaged with the workplace vision and values (46%).

While in the US, the 2020 Loneliness and the Workplace report by Cigna found that lonely workers felt less engaged and less productive. Where more than one out of ten lonely workers say their work is often (most of the time or always) lower quality than it should be.

2. Higher staff absenteeism, dissatisfaction and turnover

The operational costs of loneliness to organisations is massive in terms of staff job satisfaction, absences and turnover.

The Cigna report found that lonely workers reported lower retention and attendance rates. When a worker suffers from loneliness they are twice as likely to miss a day of work due to illness, are five times more likely to miss work due to stress and think about quitting their job twice as often as non-lonely workers.

In a similar vein, the Reventure report revealed that lonely workers are twice as likely to look for a new job within the next 12 months. Also unsurprisingly, the same study found job satisfaction levels amongst lonely workers took a hit due to loneliness, where only 49% of workers experiencing loneliness are satisfied in their role compared to more than 72% of workers who are not experiencing loneliness.

With loneliness equating to employees being dissatisfied with their job, feeling more stressed, taking more paid sick leave and being more likely to leave the company, organisations should be extremely motivated to reduce workplace loneliness.

3. Deterioration of relationships

Workplace loneliness doesn’t only affect how individuals feel about their job, it impacts their relationships with co-workers and leads to a toxic cycle of disengagement and alienation that results in poorer team performance overall.

A 2018 US field study by Barsade and Ozcelik found that lonely employees further isolated themselves at work and reported feeling less connected to the organisation. Lonely workers were also perceived by their colleagues to be distant, less approachable (in work and personal matters) and less committed to the organisation in general. In many ways loneliness serves to isolate the individual even more by changing colleagues’ views of them, fraying social ties, and impacting their willingness to communicate and collaborate effectively. Barsade (2018) says:

Once a person has decided they are lonely, they become hyper-vigilant to social threat, which leads them to behave in defensive, non-socially skilled ways and causes them to appear unapproachable and pushing people away…given how much work gets done through others at work, including the exchange of information and workplace help, being viewed as less approachable by work colleagues hurts the lonely employees’ performance.

The Reventure report found that 49% of those that are lonely are more likely to withdraw from their colleagues and thus miss out on forming those meaningful and emotional connections with those around them.

Cigna’s study found that workers who reported greater loneliness felt there weren’t people they could depend on or trust for help or advice, they lacked close relationships that provided a sense of emotional security and wellbeing, and were vigilant to others not enjoying the same social activities as them. This made it more difficult for them to meaningful and genuine connections.

Lonely employees’ withdrawal from their colleagues can have a detrimental impact on communication and collaboration, impacting teamwork, employee engagement and productivity.

4. Poor mental and physical health

The detrimental impacts of loneliness on an individual’s health in the general population and workplace has been widely studied.

Numerous studies link loneliness to mental health issues, such as depression, alcohol abuse, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and sleep problems, and physical health issues, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, obesity and cancer.

A 2015 University of York study showed loneliness can be as bad for health as obesity and smoking over time. The research linked loneliness with a 29% increased risk of coronary heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke. Some research even suggests loneliness can have the same negative effect on someone’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

In a workplace setting, the Reventure report found that 47% of lonely workers suffered from poor wellbeing and 36% of lonely workers reported getting sick more often. They also found that 15% of people experiencing loneliness are more likely to be depressed, confirming what other studies in the general population have found.

With dire mental and physical health conditions linked to loneliness, it is crucial workplaces and managers take action to combat loneliness in the interest of their employee’s well being and longevity, both professionally and personally.

How can organisations safeguard against employee loneliness

We spend half of our waking hours at work, so workplaces must take charge and implement appropriate support systems and procedures to reduce workplace loneliness and minimise its established negative impacts.

Half of Australia’s workers believe that a leader is responsible for whether team members feel lonely, while a third of workers believe workplaces should facilitate a culture of engagement and social interaction.

So, what steps can workplaces and leaders take to reduce loneliness amongst their workers?

According to Australian workers, the most effective strategies to reduce workplace loneliness are:

● providing opportunities to develop meaningful connections with team members (63%); and

● working with individuals to change negative thinking patterns (62%).

These two approaches are perceived to be the most effective courses of action against loneliness, but research indicates very few Australian workplaces (11%) have these kinds of strategies in place. Here are some of the different strategies organisations should consider:

Encourage conversation

Foster a culture where talking about loneliness and mental health issues is normalised and regular. Reventure’s study showed that only 9% of workers feel comfortable talking to HR about relationship concerns in the workplace, so more work is needed to give people the confidence, tools and language to do so if they are struggling.

Organisations can get the conversation about the impact of loneliness going and revisit it throughout the year on World Mental Health Day, R U OK? Day and during Men’s Health Week for instance. Giving people the opportunity to reflect on their mental health through surveys (i.e. by completing the loneliness scale), newsletters and seminars, and ensuring they know who to get in touch with within the company (most likely their direct manager or HR) to raise any concerns is crucial for companies to fight loneliness.

Well-being strategies and programs

Reventure’s 2017 research into Workplace Well-being revealed over half of Aussie workers see well-being programs offered by their work as effective at combating loneliness and building better social relationships.

We asked Inkling CEO & Co-founder and Registered Psychologist Sophie Hampel what some of the most successful organisational well-being strategies should address and share some examples that leaders and organisations can implement:

Well-being strategies should look at improving leadership practices, providing manageable workloads, giving workplace resources, and managing the frequency and intensity of changes. Strategies like switching off from work, giving control and autonomy to workers to do their job, and supplying them with resources and tools that help them get the job done with minimal strain, and giving space to connect with colleagues in a meaningful way, can all help to mitigate the effects of loneliness in the workplace.

Some different ideas for creative (and effective!) wellbeing strategies and programs Soph recommends that you might like to consider include:

• Documented flexi work hours to encourage physical activity during the day
Resilience workshops
• Stress management courses
• Meditation and mindfulness classes
• Fitness classes and activity clubs (i.e. Yoga, Tai Chi, camping, CrossFit, boxing, twitching, book club, walking or team sports)
• Team building programs (healthy cooking class or demonstrations, wellness challenges, escape rooms, scavenger hunts, trivia or corporate retreats)
• Health and work-life balance seminars

Inkling insight: Here at Inkling, as part of our wellbeing strategy we encourage our employees to do one thing from their “pleasure chest” (things that give them pleasure) every day. They can be small things: like listening to music you love, calling a loved one, sitting in the sun or walking their dog. Keep a list and tick them off daily. Be present while engaging in these activities.

Onboarding buddies

Research has shown that new employees (those who have been in their positions for under six months) are more likely to feel lonely – with 67% saying they always or sometimes feel alone at work.

Key to mitigating the risk of loneliness and helping new hires make connections is to create a process around effective onboarding. This could be a system involving work buddies, where a new employee is paired up with a longer-serving one to make introductions and assist in creating emotional connections with their new colleagues ensuring they settle into the new and unfamiliar work environment well.

As part of our onboarding process at Inkling, all new starters are paired up for a 1:1 with existing team members for an informal chat to talk about their role, individual strengths, and personal values. When new hires feel welcomed, accepted and valued for their unique skills, strengths and values, they are less likely to feel like the new kid on the block. We find this process helps our new starters to increase their sense of community and belonging.

To ensure we are maintaining a connection with colleagues beyond initial onboarding we have also created a ‘coffee buddy’ system. Each team member is paired up with a buddy and encouraged to make time to regularly check in with one another, giving them the opportunity to talk about how they’re going in an informal way while forging new friendships and creating meaningful connections. Research shows those with close friends and meaningful connections at work are less lonely, so having a coffee buddy or mentor you can build trust with and confide in will help reduce loneliness in the long term.

Collaboration sparks connection

A 2018 Harvard Business Review study found that a shared sense of meaning with colleagues amplifies the positive effects of social support. Shawn Achor et al. (2018) reported:

The single most impactful leadership behaviour you can undertake to counteract loneliness is to create opportunities for building shared meaning with colleagues. Understand what makes their work meaningful to them, and then connect that to what makes it meaningful for you. On a collaborative project, frame the efforts in terms of their collective advancement of your company’s mission, rather than getting bogged down in individual deliverables as ends unto themselves.

Involve employees in important decisions and discussions about company values, goals and even initiatives and programs they feel would be most effective in combating loneliness. Giving team members a shared purpose and the chance for their voice to be heard allows them to bond, emotionally buy into the company they’re moulding together and most importantly feel seen, supported and valued.

Celebrate the wins

Don’t forget to celebrate collective wins with the entire team (think a special team dinner out, a corporate movie screening or a company picnic day. For remote worker rewards try virtual wine tasting, grazing boxes, comedian nights, painting class, chocolate making or online team lunches) to reinforce social cohesion through a shared experience and sense of accomplishment. In fact, 34% of Australian workers believe celebrating team members’ achievements in person is a viable solution to help reduce loneliness in the workplace.

Taking the time to acknowledge the small and personal successes of team members can also be an effective way to reduce loneliness. Letting them know you care and just how valuable their contribution is can make the world of difference. This could be in the form of a #wins Slack or Teams channel, or a regular feature in a company-wide email celebrating the latest achievements of different team members.

Combating loneliness in the workplace

With so many alarming costs at both an individual and organisational level, it’s clear leaders play a crucial role in understanding changes in their team members and stepping in early to provide support. Of course, leaders are humans too and they may be under a lot of strain, particularly with pandemic related changes and pressures. Rather than placing the responsibility solely with the leader, we emphasise how important it is for organisations to continually measure and address loneliness in the workplace, and have clear and accessible plans in place to support individuals at all levels, with a whole organisation approach.

Hopefully these practical tips will assist you and your organisation in the fight against loneliness. Is there a wellbeing strategy or initiative to address loneliness in the workplace that your organisation has successfully implemented? We’d love to hear what’s worked for you

If you are interested in learning more about our well-being and resilience programs get in touch with the Inkling team today.

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Don’t forget to connect on LinkedIn with Soph. She would love to hear your thoughts on the article and is passionate about sharing research, articles, and insights with our leadership community.

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