“Technology creates structures. Structures shape our relationships. Where those structure enable isolation, the risk of loneliness is increased.” (7 Principles to Shape the Workplace of Tomorrow, Oasis Press, p17.)
And recent research by Totaljobs found that over one-third of employees report having no strong relationships at work.
Feeling isolated at work
For various reasons, some people can feel isolated and alone at work. It might be that they are working remotely a lot and feel physically left out of social gatherings and chat. Or they could work with people who are much older or younger than them, who are at different life-stages, or with whom they have little in common.
Sometimes people are reluctant to bring their home lives to work, and don’t talk about anything other than work-related topics. Managers can worry about revealing too much of themselves to their team and making themselves vulnerable.
Being an introvert in a team of extroverts (or vice versa) can also cause problems. Or not fitting in with the values or culture of a team or organisation can lead someone to feel like they don’t belong.
All of this can be a barrier to effective team working, bonding, motivation and engagement.
Loneliness at work is often not considered but it can have a major impact on people’s happiness, wellbeing and resilience. After all, if you look forward to work, you are more likely to turn up on time and put in the extra effort, rather than clockwatching and going through the motions.
The impact on the individual
Loneliness has been shown to have the same impact on health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being obese.
Exclusion can lead to lack of self-worth, stress and depression.
Even in a bustling open-plan office, some people can feel excluded. Or in a fast-paced busy environment, there might not be enough time to stop for a chat. The culture we create in the workplace can have a massive impact on whether people can build connections that help them work together effectively and give them emotional support and resilience.
The impact on the organisation
As well as causing emotional distress, workplace loneliness can also reduce employees’ performance and commitment to their jobs. It can lead to job dissatisfaction and people might ultimately resign in a bid to find somewhere they can be happier.
The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness has put this issue onto the political agenda. Their A Call to Action document says: “There is growing interest in discovering whether we can do more to identify and support people going through transition to anticipate and manage, or avoid loneliness by providing practical support. Organisations and academics are also exploring how we can develop psychological approaches to help people build resilience, and think and respond differently to experiencing loneliness.” (p11)
The report goes on to say: “Employers – whether in the public, private or voluntary sector – need to consider how they reduce loneliness among their increasingly remote and internet-reliant workforce. Loneliness currently costs employers £2.5bn a year. Practices that support people to have good relationships in and out of work will lead to more engaged and resilient employees.” (Pp20-21)
What can you do?
There is lots that employers and employees can do.
Developing psychological safety, as we’ve talked about in previous blogs (Psychological Safety at Work, Psychological Safety – Where Are You Without It? and RAW Network Seminar on Psychological Safety), can help employees form relationships and work together in teams. It helps people take risks – such as revealing vulnerabilities and emotions, owning up to mistakes and being honest about health issues.
Businesses can also play a role in creating communities that build connections – for example, by holding community events, getting to know the people in neighbouring workplaces, and encouraging a culture where employees make time to chat and create human connections with colleagues, clients, customers and members of the wider community.
Team projects, extracurricular activities and creating connections across all levels of an organisation can also promote employee relationships. Promoting collaborative ways of working and considering how the physical workspace affects connections can also help.
One of the most effective ways to create a healthy harmonious workplace is in the hiring process. By having a strong vision for organisational culture and communicating that vision to job applicants, you can create a team where people work together well and fit in with the company culture.
Promoting trust; reducing control
You can make a difference to other people (and yourself) if you open up about loneliness. Day-to-day interactions are so important. It can be difficult to talk about feeling isolated or alone, if you are worried about other people’s reactions. Building trust across the workplace, creating a sense of belonging for everyone, and fostering people’s influence on the organisation and each other, will help create the conditions for people to thrive, be more productive, empowered and connected.
What’s your vision for where you work? Does your workplace measure up? Or are there things you could change – in small ways – that might make a big difference to you, or to other people?