Loneliness in the Workplace

by Gael O’Brien

Loneliness in the workplace likely isn’t on the radar for many leaders. And yet, C-Suite executives were more likely than entry-level employees to report always or sometimes:

• feeling “there is no one they can turn to” (57% and 51% respectively)
• “not feeling close to anyone” (56% and 53%) and
• “no one really knows them well” (70% and 63%).

These findings, and others, from Cigna’s 2020 Loneliness Index belong on leaders’ radar. They highlight significant vulnerabilities to individuals and culture that undermine company success.

It’s not just the C-Suite and entry-level employees who score high on loneliness. The Index, released in January, indicates 80 percent of Generation Z employees (born between 1996 and 2010) and 69 percent of millennial employees (born 1981-1996) also feel lonely at work. This means a majority of employees 18 to 37 years old are operating at a distance. About 70 percent of Gen Z employees say no one understands them well. Fifty-five percent feel emotionally distant from co-workers and disconnected from others at work – even though most report having a best friend at work.

Loneliness has increased since the 2018 Index. Cigna calls it an epidemic. The 2020 Index is a clarion call for leaders to refocus on fostering greater trust, connection and sense of belonging in the workplace. Once we stop seeing loneliness as an individual’s problem and notice how we create environments where loneliness can thrive, culture work can become more targeted. Let’s look at four areas to support creating greater trust, connection and belonging in cultures. First, a lens to consider loneliness and more statistics.

Loneliness Impact

Wharton Management Professor Sigal Barsade describes loneliness as situational; it depends on the place and whether your emotional needs are being met. According to her research, loneliness leads to lower work performance and impacts organizations’ bottom line: people become more self-focused, less approachable and share less. Her earlier research emphasizes companies taking seriously their emotional culture (feelings influencing teamwork, absenteeism, burnout etc.) in addition to cognitive culture (shared values etc.).

“When people feel overwhelmed, exhausted and dehumanized, it heightens their risk for isolation,” according to Jeremy Noble, MD, a Harvard faculty member. An expert in loneliness and isolation, his recent article addresses how loneliness and burnout intensify each other in the workplace. He indicates that feeling disconnected from others “…often disconnects you from yourself,” especially for those motivated by mission and purpose.

Index statistics on social media and relationships

• Nearly 75% of very heavy social media users are considered lonely compared to 52% light users;
• Nearly 65% of very heavy social media users report always/sometimes feeling alone, twenty points higher than very heavy users reported in the 2018 Index released in 2019;
• 60% agree using technology helps them feel more connected and establishes meaningful relationships. However, 56 % acknowledge it reduces interaction with others;
• 57% of remote workers (one in ten work remotely) say they always/sometimes feel alone (52% for non-remote); 46% feel there is no one they can turn to (43% for non-remote);
• 60% of employees spend less than an hour to up to two hours per day on face-to-face interaction:
• No matter how little or much time spent in face-to-face interactions, 72 percent report being satisfied by that amount; and
• Those having daily, in-person social interactions are significantly less likely to say they sometimes/always “feel there is no one they can turn to.”

Ideas to consider for increasing trust, connection and belonging

Leading by example in the C-Suite

The 2020 Loneliness Index makes a good case for why decreasing loneliness should become a leadership priority. It will require modeling social skills and emotional intelligence as C-Suite leaders address the impact of loneliness in their organization. Some may need support addressing what’s involved in building more trust and connection within the company. Many competent leaders play to their strengths and avoid skills needed in strengthening work relationships.

CEOs set the tone for how senior executives work together as one team, how managers lead and how employees are to be supported. Communicating company values and what the company wants to stand for isn’t done often enough. Trust and connection are byproducts of knowing a boss cares about your success, helps you improve, holds you accountable and cheers you on. The more CEOs demonstrate that focus to senior executives, the more it is adopted and impacts how managers interact with employees.

Acknowledging vulnerabilities

If senior executives don’t acknowledge loneliness (for themselves or others) or dismiss it, they become less effective. The inattention prevents the necessary curiosity about if/how loneliness is impacting others or harming the culture. The 2020 Loneliness Index and the two-page fact sheet should be shared as a vehicle for discussing loneliness at work. For those interested in a playbook on organizational conversations, consider reading the Harvard Business School article “Open Your Organization to Honest Conversations.” 

Loneliness fallout has enough business and human concerns to merit challenging whether enough has been done. Asking questions enables exploring a variety of answers. Maybe the onboarding of new employees should be extended? Maybe managers should be developed to know how to read and react to signs that employees are disconnected? Maybe asking employees “what about our workplace might encourage feelings of loneliness?” might provide insight to action.

Organizations providing training, services or products demanding the very highest standards and flawless execution may inadvertently create a culture that fuels loneliness. Very successful people can feel “not good enough” because feedback is only directed at what can/should be done better. Friendship is tougher because the climate is so competitive. And talking about feelings plays like weakness. Stress and burnout are likely very high. When an organization feels it must be beyond reproach, it’s very hard to admit some things haven’t been handled well and ask for input. And yet, doing so, and making necessary changes, opens the possibility of becoming a truly great organization driven by a healthy culture.

Putting a face in social media dominance

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Cigna’s Chief Medical Officer for Behavioral Health, Douglas Nemecek, said Gen Z’s and millennials’ communication preferences can increase feeling isolated. They prefer email and texting and avoid telephone and in-person conversations. Not developing social skills can hamper their careers, as well as impede team building. What isn’t comfortable is too often avoided. Managers can expand the definition of efficiency to make it more human-centric, supporting younger employees gaining more skills and comfort in face-to-face connection. Relationships built with words on a screen don’t develop the insight and ways of knowing that sustain rich working relationships.

In his recent book Face to Face: The Art of Human Connection,  movie producer Brian Grazer writes: “The more we…send messages via text and social media rather than meeting and talking face to face, the more comfortable we become looking down at our screens rather than looking up at one another.” He continues “…your ability to make eye contact can be the determining factor in whether or not you …earn the trust of your coworkers….” That reminder also applies to anyone seeking efficiency who keeps typing with eyes on the screen when someone enters the office to talk.”

Supporting connection and belonging at work

Connection and belonging are ongoing works in progress. We know bosses play a huge role in setting a tone where employees feel seen, heard and respected. We know bosses who are good communicators clarify expectations to help team members succeed. We also know those who give ongoing feedback to recognize achievements and offer suggestions to support growth create more engagement. However, managers and supervisors weaker in these skills, not receiving mentoring, are likely contributing to employee loneliness. Especially if they’re feeling isolated themselves. Gallup’s 2018 Employee Burnout study identifies poor communication and manager support as factors contributing to burnout.

What is employees’ part in feeling less lonely and more connected to others at work? For starters, they can watch Liz Fosslien’s funny and inciteful four-minute TED Talk “How to Embrace Emotions at Work.”  She offers tips on how under- and over-sharers can feel happier at work. Fosslien is co-author of No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work and head of content at Humu. Her article, “How Leaders Can Open up to Their Teams without Oversharing,”  offers suggestions about how to relate more personally.

I didn’t expect employee feedback to highlight belonging in the Top 10 companies in Fortune Magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” February 2020 list. However, for these top companies, the four statements (on the Great Places to Work Trust Index Survey) that employees agreed to more often were:

• “When you join the company, you are made to feel welcome”
• “Management is honest and ethical in its business practices”
• “I’m proud to tell others I work here”
• “I feel good about the ways we contribute to the community”

Trust, connection and belonging create healthy cultures and great places to work. As leadership guru Margaret Wheatley writes in the opening line of her poem “Turning to One Another” :

“There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.”

Gael O’Brien is a catalyst in leaders leading with purpose and impact through clarity, presence and connection. She is an executive coach, culture coach, speech coach and presenter. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is also a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University, and a Senior Fellow Social Innovation, the Lewis Institute at Babson College.

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Loneliness in the Workplace